I do not like parallel parking and I avoid it at all costs. However, when my kids were learning to drive, I taught them all how to parallel park because I knew it would be part of the road test. It would not have been fair to my kids for them to take the test if they were not prepared. Assessment should be fair.
In Ontario the results of the EQAO spring assessments (grades 3, 6, 9 and 10) have been recently released and there is the usual chatter and angst and discussion about the validity of standardized testing. Of course, we as teachers, feel joyful when our students do well and miserable when our students do poorly. That makes sense; our students’ performance is, in part, a reflection on us as teachers. But, we often go to great lengths to find other reasons to dismiss the testing. That makes sense as well but it may not be productive.
There are things that happen with the EQAO assessments in Ontario that I do not like. Individual school results are printed in the newspapers without taking into consideration a myriad of other factors. In many boards, targets for individual schools are set, based on last year’s results. And, a part of me does wonder if grade 3 students, eight year olds, are really able to demonstrate their knowledge in that kind of setting.
However, there are things about the EQAO assessments I do like. They are based on the Ontario curriculum and the questions, for the most part, are challenging for students. The question I ask teachers all the time is: would you be happy if all your students could answer these questions at the end of the year or are the questions unfair, pointless, and not based on the curriculum? Invariably the answer is that the questions are fair and we would all be thrilled if our students could answer them.
So then, why not “teach to the test”? The phrase “teach to the test” gets bandied about as if it were a bad thing. And, if the test was simply full of the same factual questions year after year, so that all teachers did all year long was to drill students on those questions, then I would agree that “teaching to the test” would be a waste of everyone’s time. But the reality is that the test is based on the curriculum and the questions are designed so that we would be happy if our students could answer them.
Go ahead and teach to the test then, I say. If you can do so, and your students are all successful, how is that a bad thing? It is based on the curriculum so you know your students know their stuff. The questions are designed to be challenging so you know your students are thinking and succeeding. Your students will feel good about themselves during the test, because they will know how to do it, and afterwards when they get their results. And you, the teacher, will feel good, because your efforts paid off. Public confidence in education will be high. Where’s the down side?
In Ontario, and most other jurisdictions with standardized testing, past tests and sample questions are available. Neither the format or the type of question is a mystery. The question then becomes: are you teaching throughout the year in ways that make the assessment fair to your students?
- If you never ask questions during the year that are the same level of difficulty and complexity to the EQAO questions, then you aren’t being fair.
- If your students have never seen a multiple choice type format prior to the standardized testing (and no one has ever told them that the very best wrong answer will be there), then you aren’t being fair.
- If your students don’t know that it is okay to do the figuring out on a piece of scrap paper before choosing an answer in multiple choice (and many don’t know this), then you aren’t being fair.
- If your math students are not given opportunities throughout the year to determine which manipulatives they will need, instead of you as the teacher telling them, then you aren’t being fair. (Because during the assessment the student can go get a manipulative off the shelf but you can’t put it in front of them).
- If your students never have to do work and solve problems independently, without you rescuing them, then you aren’t being fair.
- If you don’t return to big key ideas multiple times throughout the year, then you aren’t being fair.
- If you have never examined the scoring guides for the questions, so that you know the expectations, then you aren’t being fair.
I am definitely not advocating that students spend all year practicing pasts tests. Nor am I advocating that teachers put lots of pressure on students with regards to the tests. I am suggesting, however, that teachers not ignore the test.
Education is about the “what if”. What if all of our students were to demonstrate high levels of competence on the standardized tests that we know are based on curriculum and demand our students to be critical thinkers? We would all be thrilled. Assessment should be fair to students. So, go ahead and teach your class so that all assessments are fair to them, even the standardized ones.