"It's a shame they've got teachers spending so much time teaching to the test -- and so little time on academic learning," a former D.C. school official complained to Maudine Cooper the other day.
Cooper, who heads the Greater Washington Urban League, said she thought about the complaint and tried to see it the ex-official's way. But in the end, she told me, her conclusion was what it had been in the first place: You can't teach to the test without imparting academic learning.
I've been trying to figure out since our conversation whether Cooper or the unnamed official comes closer to the heart of what's happening -- or failing to happen -- in big-city schools.
To clear one thing out of the way, teaching the test is cheating. The issue was how much academic sense it makes to teach to the test: to shape the curriculum, choose study materials, create examples and use instructional language specifically calculated to maximize students' scores on standardized tests.
The former school official apparently assumes (I haven't talked to her) that teaching to the test forces teachers to teach in such a disjointed fashion that students won't be able to make sense of the material. If that's her fear, it is a reasonable one.
Questions on standardized tests of the sort the official has in mind are designed to sample knowledge. They are proxies for more comprehensive knowledge. If test-takers correctly associate "Hester Prynne" and "Nathaniel Hawthorne," they are presumed to have read "The Scarlet Letter." If they can pick out the subjects of three or four sentences, they are presumed to have a working knowledge of English grammar. If they can identify a quadratic equation, they are presumed to have some ability to handle algebra.
But it is theoretically possible to teach the scattered samples -- "If an example has an X-square and an equal sign in it, it's a quadratic equation" -- without teaching the underlying material.
I doubt that much of that sort of teaching is going on. First, it's not possible (without cheating) to gather enough specific test items. To gather specific types of questions and then teach the correct answers to them is, well, teaching.
That's Cooper's point -- or part of it. "Teaching to the test, in the way I understand it, means you have to teach the children some academic skills," she says. "But there's another piece that's more important than that: The focus ought to be on the techniques of test-taking.
"I think that's especially true for African Americans. I know people who had a devil of a time passing the bar examination but who turned out to be outstanding and creative lawyers. We get thrown by the form of the question, by the fact that some questions contain extraneous material, by phrasing that doesn't sound like the way we speak.
"We call it culture bias and say the tests are biased against us, and we freeze -- and fail. What we ought to be doing is teaching children to become familiar with the way tests are constructed, the way questions are put and even when to guess at an answer."
Is that teaching to the test -- or only teaching to testing?
Either way, Cooper's notion makes sense to me. To a far greater extent than we realize, standardized tests, no matter their ostensible subject, are language tests. We understand the impediment of unfamiliar language if the test-taker's home language is Vietnamese or Spanish. But when the home language is a nonstandard dialect of English, we often lose the insight. We assume that if a child can pronounce the words, he understands the question. And if he understands the question, he'll supply the right answer -- if he knows it.
Cooper believes the assumptions are dangerously misleading when it comes to African American children of poorly educated parents. "You can teach me to pronounce French words, and maybe do a pretty good job of it. But if you give me a test in French -- even if I'm quite familiar with the subject matter -- don't expect me to do well. As a matter of fact, I'm likely to look at the test and give up without even really trying."
So what should we do: Translate the tests into the sounds and rhythms and grammatical patterns that have come to be called "Ebonics"? Or teach children to handle the language of the tests?
Before you answer, consider two facts:
(1) Facility with standardized English has enormous payoffs well beyond the testing arena.
(2) Life doesn't come with a translation.