Two Great Teachers Teach Me

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006; 11:00 AM

To my astonishment, I am still receiving e-mails about an op-ed piece, "Let's Teach to the Test," I wrote two months ago. I argued that most good teachers consider No Child Left Behind and other test-driven assessments convenient benchmarks and don't find them disabling, as many critics say they are. I said what people call teaching to the test is actually teaching to the state standards, which most of us parents think is good, so perhaps we should consider teaching to the test a good thing, if the test is valid and the teaching sound.

Most of the hundreds of e-mails that have come in have suggested, in mostly polite terms, that I have no business writing about schools. But a larger minority than I expected said I was right. Given that continued interest, I thought I would share reactions to the op-ed from two teachers whom I know well, and who are both stars in the classroom. Kenneth Bernstein, who teaches social studies at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County, Md., and Mark Ingerson, who teaches social studies in the city of Salem, Va., look at this issue from different angles. In my view they should be read carefully because they both understand how best to communicate difficult material in the classroom and motivate students to learn.

They have given me permission to share their e-mail addresses, and, if anyone wants to contact them. I have had to edit some of what they said, so do not think this is all they have to say on this subject. But you will learn more about this topic from them than you will from me:

This is Bernstein's reaction, first published on the Daily Kos Web site: Multiple choice items can be quickly and cheaply scored, so we tend to rely on them far too much. I have had students who know how to address such questions (by process of elimination) who do successfully but who could never provide the answers on their own. Have they really learned the content being assessed? Are their scores an accurate measurement of their underlying knowledge? I think not. Conversely, I have students who truly understand the domain being assessed who get frustrated because they can recognize the existence of more than one technically correct answer or the erroneous framing of the stem (question) such that there is no correct answer. Does that shock of recognition negatively impact their performance? I am unaware of any serious exploration of this issue in the research literature.

Finally, before leaving this paragraph, let me note that a large number of advocates of our testing approach are quite willing to argue that the tests SHOULD drive the instruction. Heck, even if (a) the standards were appropriate, and (b) the tests were an accurate measurement of the learning that has occurred, and (c) the tests were properly aligned with the standards both as to content and as to distribution, should not the tests be measuring the quality of the learning demonstrated by the students (not all of which is an artifice of the instruction received from the teachers) than attempting to drive the instruction itself?

If there is any doubt on this last point, all one need to do is consider how often those who actually produce the test (that is, the corporations which sell the tests) also sell curricula, test prep materials, and the like. One cannot help but wonder about the real motives of many involved in strong advocacy for such tests.

I teach in a public school, and most often the courses I teach are in some fashion required for my students. Thus I must accept that people will want some independent evaluation of the "effectiveness" of what my students encounter in my classroom and with my assigned work. I have taught electives -- in social issues and in comparative religion -- in which I gave no tests, and thus was able to explore issues in far more depth. Students who have taken both my government classes (required) and one or both of the electives have often told me that they learned more -- about themselves, about society, about learning and thinking -- in those electives than they did even in my often quite challenging and provocative government classes.

The existence of external tests inevitably influences what occurs in my classroom. I cannot avoid my responsibility for preparing my students to do well on those tests. That takes time away from other things I might want to explore. It limits my ability to respond to events in the world and in the lives of my students that might be far more meaningful in connecting them with the domain. To be fair, I have never had a principal tell me HOW to teach my students. I have at times been questioned, challenged to justify a specific approach, although even this is rare. I must acknowledge that one big reason for the flexibility I have is because my students do quite well on the external tests, and that the only discrepancy between the grades I award for the work I assign and the scores on the tests is the example of those who do not do as well for me as they do for the external tests. In my case I benefit in some measure from the existence of the scores on external tests.

But I still do not like them. They are incomplete and gross measures of what my students can know or do. Unlike my tests, they do not provide meaningful feedback either to the students or to me -- the scores are not provided in a fashion timely enough to shape ongoing instruction, to demonstrate my need to reteach a sub-domain because far too many students misunderstood, or for them to realize a need to reexamine the subject, perhaps to obtain extra help (which I do offer, and which is also available in the form of tutoring by National Honor Society members as part of their service requirement).

I worry that we are cheating our young people of their right to true education by our increasing emphasis on tests. I think there may now be enough evidence of the counterproductivity of the approach we have been taking. "A Nation at Risk" came out in 1983. Since then we have ramped up our emphasis on standards and high stakes tests. And yet now we are constantly told that things are even worse.

This is Ingerson's reaction, in an e-mail to me:

I wanted to point out something that I think most people miss in all of this discussion. So many teachers seem to get so worked up by the state tests and go on about "mindlessly teaching facts" in "isolation" and argue that we must instead focus on "higher level thinking skill." Or they say "facts are inferior to understanding." They say we instead need "critical thinking skills."

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