Nationwide, publishing companies are making billions of dollars by marketing something that has little to no research behind it, test prep material. Yes, books full of worksheets that simulate questions from the big standardized tests (which happen to be written by the same companies) have been pushed onto the education world since the implementation of the tests themselves. The problem is, we are all too willing to spend money to scoop up these materials and completely shift what learning looks like to work page by page through these practice materials.
Why do we do this? Have we studied their impact, or have we just assumed it was a good use of our time and money? When talking to parents and teachers, I often hear how much learning changes in the month or so leading up to the test. Classrooms that were once full of conversation and student led inquiry are now organized in rows with a teacher up front, holding the hands of children through workbooks or sending students to prep websites (I’m looking at you Study Island). More interesting to me though is how learning seems to change AFTER the test. This is when many parents report that less learning happens and teachers try to cram in the projects and more “fun” stuff into the final months of school. What message does this send?
What research shows is that the most effective teachers in the U.S. have classrooms that almost completely ignore the test prep model and are less dependent on particular curriculum materials, pedagogical methods, or “proven programs” (Allington & Johnston, 2001; Darling-Hammond, 1999; Duffy, 1997; Pressley, et al, 2001; Sanders, 1998; Taylor, Pearson, Clark & Walpole, 2000). Instead, effective teachers rely on intentional planning for student-led learning opportunities that included literacy embedded into nearly everything they did (Allington, 2002). Edgar Dale’s work in 1969 also shows that active learning is a key to retention (see figure below). But how much of our deliberate engagement in test prep can be considered active?
I do understand that, in Colorado, teacher evaluation is based partially on student growth measured by scores on testing opportunities (NWEA, TCAP, etc.). However, I also know that the other 50% of our evaluation is based on what learning looks like in the classroom. Better yet, the evaluation rubric for this part happens to align with a more personalized model! Which do you feel more in control of?
I encourage parents, teachers, and students to question the methods we often use to prepare children for the standardized test. Dig a bit, use common sense. Most importantly though, I would challenge everyone to ask the question; is this preparing our children for the real world? Are we creating our own culture of fear and anxiety around the test by pushing the panic button a month out?