Beware of Teaching Methods That Focus on Test-Taking

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

Sometime back you asked for comments on trickle-down effects of the Advanced Placement Program on instruction in high school courses ["Advanced Courses for Everyone: A Good Policy?," April 19]. I thought you might like to know about what I've seen at my daughter's Montgomery County high school. In early January, my daughter and I met with her ninth-grade honors English teacher to discuss difficulties with the homework. In particular, my daughter was struggling with the 40-sentence extended constructed response.

My daughter was of the understanding that this essay form required exactly 40 sentences -- no more, no less. As she tried to edit her work, she would take out a sentence for each new one that she put in. If she gave me her work to proofread, turning a comma splice into two proper sentences meant that she had to eliminate a sentence somewhere else. As my daughter was not writing very complex sentences, you will understand the limits of this particular literary form.

During our one-hour conversation, the teacher mentioned SAT exam preparation three times and three times that ninth-grade honors English class work was designed to prepare students for success on the AP English examination. Only once did she discuss the relevance of writing a well-organized essay, and that was in the context of the AP exam essay requirement. There were no mentions of developing an appreciation of the expressive power of any form of literature, or of the importance of developing skill in writing anything other than the "40-sentence ECR," which, indeed, she expected to contain precisely 40 sentences. I left the meeting with the understanding that training students to write the 40-sentence ECR is a specific item in the Montgomery County Public Schools English curriculum and that the point of that item is to enable students to write AP exam essays.

In the second semester of ninth grade, my daughter had a different teacher, and the 40-sentence ECR did not make a reappearance. Likewise, it has not shown up in 10th-grade honors English. This made me curious, and I decided to look for references to the 40-sentence ECR in the ninth- and 10th-grade Reading English Language Arts Content Standards published by MCPS, where I could not find anything that specific.

I dropped a line to the school principal, who looked into it with the chairman of the English department. It turns out that the 40-sentence ECR is not an MCPS, departmental or ninth-grade English team requirement. Evidently, it is one particular teacher's notion of a way to produce students who will perform well on the written portions of standardized examinations.

When I encounter test-prep talk, it is hard for me to determine whether it is because the teacher thinks that this is what would please me most to hear as a parent, [because] it is some school or district party line or [because] it truly is what the teacher believes. Even then, it can be quite difficult for me to figure out whether a given conversation on this topic is meaningful for my daughter's future.

In the particular case of the 40-sentence ECR, I'm glad that I took my questions to the principal. What I feared to be evidence of institutionally supported test mania instead proved to indicate something different, and possibly more disturbing. I am left wondering how many teachers are single-handedly (and with all good intent) refocusing their courses so that greater emphasis is placed on test-taking techniques, rather than emphasizing the core course content. In the case of English, this represents the sacrifice of a broader set of writing and oral presentation skills on the altar of timed writing and AP-friendly stylistics. Unfortunately, it appears that, in the words of the fictional Alastair Moody, I must continue to maintain "constant vigilance" for the sake of my daughter's education.

Lucy Alton


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