Shara Sarnelli is an English major with minors in Education and Women’s Studies. She is graduating this May, and will begin chasing her dream of becoming an inspiring high school teacher soon after. She is heading to Boston College to pursue her Master’s of Education, which will help her fulfill her career aspiration.
Imagine being a sophomore student in a high school English course. You are thoroughly engaged in the class, which is assessed through individual and group projects, interactive class discussions, and papers that deviate from the five-tier standard essay. Your favorite project was acting out a scene from Hamlet in a group. Through a project like this, you are able to better relate to the characters of Shakespeare’s play, grasp the writing style and language of the author, and understand the underscored themes.
Unfortunately, such dynamic projects do not directly teach to high-stakes standardized tests. As a result of enjoying class, your testing scores or ability could suffer, and thus your diploma is in jeopardy. Furthermore, your passionate teacher’s job could be threatened. On top of that, if a majority of students score low on standardized tests, but perform well in class and even enjoy learning, the school itself fails to meet its AYP. The school’s reputation is damaged, and funding is at risk.
Standardized testing is a reality in the realm of education, whether we like it or not. We can challenge tests like MCAS and SATs until our energy is extirpated. Or we can simply prove that teaching good reading and writing skills can prepare students for standardized tests without necessarily teaching to the test.
High-stakes testing tends to obliterate student-centered learning, and narrow the curriculum, as well as take away from the reading and writing experience. The student-centered approach and teacher flexibility have been displaced by focus on test preparation and accountability (Higgins 310). But does this have to be the case? Can we maintain quality education while preparing students for the tests they are bound to take?
“High-quality, evidenced-based instruction need not be sacrificed in preparing students to succeed” on standardized writing assessments (Higgins 310); yet these sacrifices occur too often. If teachers are encouraged to instruct with best practices “rather than explicit teaching to the test” (Higgins 310), then students may be able to perform well on standardized writing tests. This instruction should be comprised of writing in a variety of genres, giving students choices of topics to write about that relate to their interests, providing time in and out of class for writing and revising, incorporating writing conventions (Higgins 310), and making use of peer evaluation.
Some studies show that students who have effective writing instruction score higher on formalized writing tests than those who receive instruction based solely on skills assessed on the test (Higgins 310). Effective writing instruction can be implemented by giving attention to the social nature of language, recognizing the importance of a student-centered pedagogy, and using developmentally appropriate practices (Higgins 311).