Teaching to the Test

Inside Massachusetts public schools, MCAS has become a cyclone whose fury knows no bounds. In just two short years, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System has whipped up a mixture of hope, fear, and anger in thousands of students, teachers, administrators, and parents. In the short run, it has forced educators to recognize that students who are not reading and writing at a proficient level can no longer be ignored. In the long run, I think the test’s emphasis on breadth instead of depth and its use in determining graduation raise serious concerns about what students should be expected to learn–and who is making those decisions.

As a former bilingual-education teacher, an Annenberg school-change coach, and now a literacy specialist, all in the Boston public schools, I have seen staff stop their watches and knock their heads against the wall in order to move in the direction that tests such as MCAS dictate.

One positive change has to do with writing. Because MCAS requires students to write open-ended responses to questions in math, history, science, and English, most teachers are now being held accountable for how their students write. Before MCAS, many teachers relied on short-answer questions to assess student knowledge. With a teaching load of 125 to 150 students, correcting student writing is a time issue. Besides that, many of these subject-area teachers have never taken a course in teaching reading or writing. They used to see that as the English teacher’s job. But not any longer. It’s their job, like it or not.

At Brighton High School, where I worked last year, another literacy specialist and I met with groups of teachers to talk about teaching reading and writing across the curriculum. Many were reluctant to give up what was once their individual planning time to attend the sessions. But when we began to discuss student work in relation to MCAS and the Stanford 9–a standardized reading-comprehension and math test that the Boston public schools are using–there was a noticeable difference in attitude. They knew their students were being held accountable to these external standards, and they wanted to know more about them.

Across all subjects, most teachers said that vocabulary was their students’ nemesis, so that became our first topic to tackle, followed by strategies that promote good reading and writing habits. The teachers observed that many of their students’ papers were at an elementary level. But that, we discovered, was in part because the questions they asked students remained at a literal comprehension level. We practiced posing questions that require students to analyze and evaluate.

At the end of the year, I sat in on an early morning meeting with a group of teachers my fellow literacy specialist had worked with. The teachers were reading samples of student writing from an English class. Every teacher at the table remarked how far the students had come since the beginning of the year. They were writing with clear thesis statements, using evidence and examples to back it up, and ending with meaningful conclusions.

At Charlestown High School, where I’m working this year, the headmaster hired a writing consultant from the University of Massachusetts-Boston to work with teachers in the two ninth-grade units. Several teachers wanted more insight into the writing problems of bilingual students who were now mainstreamed into their classes. A science teacher asked for material to help students understand difficult textbooks.

The consultant also offered a two-week summer course on writing strategies. A history teacher from Charlestown High was among those who attended. He told me that his students did very poorly on the essay portion of his exams and often left that part blank. With MCAS approaching, he wanted to improve his understanding and repertoire of writing activities in order to help his students. The pressure of MCAS was just what he needed to spur him to action.

Tests looming on the horizon have gotten teachers to focus on ways of helping students improve their performance. But test scores aren’t always what they seem, as I found out this year at Charlestown High.

Boston’s high schools have a new ninth-grade transition program for students who got low scores on the Stanford 9 last spring, when they were in eighth grade. These students take the equivalent of an extended class of 80 minutes in English and 80 minutes in math each day. A reading-comprehension test, the Scholastic Reading Inventory, is given three times a year to trace each student’s reading progress. As the literacy specialist, I corrected the fall exams. According to the test, close to 20 percent of the ninth-grade students were reading on a fourth-grade level or lower.

As I met with these students, I discovered that the reading scores were meaningless for one-third to one-half of them. The overwhelming majority thought it was too long; they got tired of reading. Instead, they randomly filled in the bubbles or left half the test blank. Other students whose native language is not English didn’t recognize the vocabulary words in the multiple-choice answers. When I asked them to re-read the passages, they were able to explain what they read perfectly. It was the answers they couldn’t comprehend.

One boy who is repeating ninth grade scored on a fifth-grade level. I suspected this wasn’t accurate and asked him why he thought he did so poorly. He smiled and said, “Oh, Ms. Markowitz, you know I hate to take these tests. I hate sitting for so long, so I quit. It doesn’t count anyhow, so who cares?”

“I knew it!” I responded. “I know and you know that you’re a really good reader. I bet if you finish the test, your score would go up at least two years or more.” He took the challenge. An hour and a half later, after several breaks with chips and chocolates I had in my bag, he walked out of my office and back to his class. I scored the test. He placed on a ninth-grade level–a four year jump!

The test results were not a true measure of these students’ ability to comprehend what they read. At the same time, the tests did give me the opportunity to speak to students individually about their reading. In some cases, the message was painful; it confirmed what they already knew. Others appeared to repress their difficulties. But surprisingly, almost all of the meetings ended on a constructive note. I discussed with each student the importance of reading for a half hour every night in order to improve comprehension, regardless of reading level. Many students seriously considered this requirement. Some negotiated for 15 minutes instead. We talked about their interests and I helped each one choose a book from the shelf. Then we looked at their after-school and evening schedules to determine a good time for them to read each night. We set a goal of reading three books before the next SRI test, in January.

One morning, about a week after I finished these meetings, I arrived at school and in front of my office was Edwin. He told me he was there to return his book and take out another one. I couldn¹t believe it. “You¹re finished already?” I asked. “Yes, and I bet I can finish more than three books before the next test, too,” he replied. “Well, this isn’t a contest, but let’s go inside and find another book for you,” I agreed. Then I saw a friend of Edwin’s walk past my office, and decided to use my eager beaver as bait. I asked the young man how far he had gotten in his book. I told him that Edwin had already finished his. Pretty soon, there were one or two students coming to my office each morning to return their books and find new ones.

The reading tests served as a catalyst for many students to start reading independently. I wanted their scores to improve, but my real hope was for them to get comfortable reading, then start to look forward to reading, then, eventually, love it! For some, they’re well on their way. One girl told me she liked poetry. I lent her a book of my daughter’s, Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein. She came into my office and read me her favorite poem, “Sick.” We talked about humor and why some people are funny and others not. I gave her another Silverstein collection, Falling Up. When she returned it, she looked through the bookstand and asked me, “Why don’t you have any more poetry books?”

No Time for Depth

Although the new emphasis on reading and writing has been positive, the pressure to conform to a prescribed curriculum has not. Bilingual-education teachers at Charlestown High point out that the content of the MCAS is not fully aligned with the English as a Second Language standards of the Boston public schools. MCAS assesses a body of knowledge which they say is inappropriate for students learning a second language. The Boston ESL standards emphasize oral communication, as well as reading comprehension and writing. For students who are just learning a language, it takes a lot of time to research a topic and prepare material to present in front of the class. These skills are critical for bilingual students to become successful communicators, but they are not measured by MCAS.

One teacher tells me the readings she uses are challenging for her ninth-and 10th-grade students, but have themes that they can relate to: Taste of Salt is about a boy raised in Haiti during the time Aristide takes power from Duvalier; Onion Tears is about a Vietnamese immigrant¹s experience in Australia. In comparison, the 1998 MCAS included excerpts from Thomas Wolfe and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra:

ENOBARBUS: When she first met Mark Antony, she pursed up his heart, upon the river of Cydnus.

AGRIPPA: There she appeared indeed; or my reporter devised well for her.

How would she even begin to prepare her students for such passages?

In response to the new standards, some classes have been sacrificed. For example, this year’s extra periods of English and math for ninth-grade transition students came at the expense of last year’s study skills/integrated studies class. This course took three months to teach all students to organize a notebook, make an outline, write a paragraph, and prepare for a project. Then, from December to March, students worked on a common project, entitled “Discovering Our Roots,” in all four of their core classes. In social studies, they studied the geography and history of their country of origin; in math, they studied immigration patterns through history and documented what they learned with graphs and statistics; in science, they learned about genetics by studying their own genealogy; and in English, they wrote the results of their research and prepared oral presentations. Once a week, each class worked with the computer instructor to download information from the Internet and send e-mail messages to pen pals from their countries of origin.

Here was a unit that students would remember for a long time to come. But because of the new tests, spending time on specific subject matter has been declared the highest priority, and teachers are no longer allowed the luxury of creating their own curriculum. A course that stimulated students’ and teachers’ creativity and inquisitiveness has been eliminated.

In fact, there’s less time overall for studying topics in depth. The same history teacher who had been inspired to learn how to teach writing recently told me how poorly his students had done on a recent assignment–a “key question” the entire 10th grade was focusing on. The topic was imperialism. “Compared to last year, my students really didn¹t get it,” he explained. “They don¹t understand the basic power relationships and differences between imperialist nations and colonies. I’m very disappointed, but I can’t say I’m surprised.”

He wasn’t surprised because this year he didn’t have time to supplement the text with primary- and secondary-source articles. Last year, he set up a “world tribunal court” with groups of students representing imperialist nations and colonies. They had to research the economy, political history, military alliances, and relations between the colonies and colonial powers. Then the colonies presented their case for independence to the court and faced cross-examination by the colonial powers.

“Last year we studied 21 units. This year we’ll study 26,” this teacher points out. “Students will spend less time on each unit but cover more topics. Is this what we really want?”

Teachers understand that high standards are needed to promote high-quality education in every school. In the schools where I’ve taught, I have seen MCAS serve as a catalyst, spurring teachers to incorporate writing into their curriculum. But my colleagues and I are not optimistic that MCAS will help to improve achievement in the long run. A test that demands coverage of a long list of topics does not allow time for problem solving or putting knowledge into context. This ultimately undermines the possibility of students developing passion for the subject matter. A forum should be established for teachers to review the test with parents so that they, too, understand what is being tested and how MCAS is reducing the depth of the curriculum.

Furthermore, using MCAS as a high-stakes test runs counter to what the education research of the past 15 years has said about student assessment: Student learning styles are varied and must be assessed in multiple ways, such as grade point averages, portfolios, projects, and performances. This would truly be a comprehensive assessment system. One test used alone leaves too much room for error.

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Finally, I worry about the implications of MCAS for the students I work with in urban schools–poor students, students of color, bilingual students, students with learning disabilities. My fear is too many will fail the exam and drop out. Then, all the high standards in the world will do them no good.

Susan Markowitz is a literacy specialist at Charlestown High School in Boston.