Posts Tagged ‘Teaching vs. Testing’

Testing vs. teaching in a Texas school

May 10, 2011

Barbara Renaud Gonzales reported in the current Texas Observer how high-stakes testing works at one Texas middle school.

The school is testing for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) benchmarks before the real TAKS test, which determines which students progress to the next grade.  The tests, administered by the Texas Education Agency, also determine how the school is rated academically. Benchmark testing is supposed to help schools project how students will perform on the actual TAKS.  If too many students fail in the spring, the principal’s job, along with everyone else’s in the administration, is at stake. The school I’m visiting is considered at-risk for being labeled “low performing.”

The school district, out of desperation, has contracted with a prestigious university, my employer, to help the teachers in math, reading and science.  I’m here to gather data about attendance, behavior and grades—key to researching how to reduce dropouts.

At my university, researchers have spent almost 15 years examining the complexities of student success in at-risk schools.  We have found that standardized tests like the TAKS are not predictors for high school graduation.  Students flunk the TAKS for reasons other than academic skills.  Some have oh-my-God! panic attacks.  Some, like the dyslexic Albert Einstein, can’t perform well on tests.  Many progressive educators believe that standardized tests should enhance the curriculum, not punish students by failing them. … …

Because of my job, I get to observe the different seventh-grade classes.  There are more than 30 students in most of the math and science classes, and the teachers try hard to ignore whispering, jostling and paper-shuffling.  One-third of the class seems to be at risk of  failing because of emotional and academic problems.  Some are special education students who have been mainstreamed.  Some are wannabe gang members.  Some are just bored.  The teachers must get through their lessons in 45 minutes and don’t seem to breathe the whole time.   They are absorbed in their LCD boards, their colorful markers, swooping through the fractions and formulas once and again.  They give tips and shortcuts for solving the math problems likely to come up on the TAKS.  Pay attention!  The front of the class is quiet, but the back third is buzzing at the end of the day.  My university’s master teachers are helping teachers keep students engaged with the coursework.  Play games, they tell the teachers.  Give real-life problems.  But the TAKS seems to be the dark cloud in their classroom.

The math teachers call the last period of the day “the class from hell.”

At the end of the third six-week period, in early January, I tell my university that it doesn’t seem right to me that the grade reports show only six seventh-graders out of 350—the target group we’re following—are failing math.  I’ve been in those classrooms, observed how one-third aren’t paying attention.  How can this be?  I’m a product of working-class public schools and know how easy it is to fall behind in math. … …

At the end of the school year, seven of 357 seventh-graders have failed math, according to the official roster.  Six have failed English and reading.  The school meets the TAKS standards and receives a “recognized” rating.  With the help of master teachers, after-school and Saturday morning tutorials, 70 percent of the students have met the standard in math.  But do they know how to solve a problem that’s not on the TAKS?