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).
An example of instruction that combines all three focuses is the writing workshop, followed by the writing process. First, students select topics to write about, then they engage in prewriting activities. Finally, they begin developing their drafts. Prewriting activities include topic discussion, setting goals, creating outlines, and mini-lessons. Before a writing workshop begins, the teacher delivers a mini-lesson to center on one specific technique, such as voice (the writer’s tone and style as fit for an assignment) or point of view (first person, third person, omniscient). For most of the workshop, students should write and engage in both teacher and peer conferences. At the end of the workshop, the whole class shares individual writing (Higgins 311). Students can read passages directly from their work, or they can offer a summary of what their work is about and how they went about their writing process.
With such instruction, students are not denied the experience that comes with reading and writing; they can still become caught up in a book, engage in the characters, explore an array of perspectives, challenge universal truths, and develop positions (which could turn into a thesis) that they are passionate about. Teachers do not have to stick to the five-tier essay, although it should be discussed for test purposes; they can have students write memoirs, reviews, short stories, persuasive essays, and blog posts. A student’s strength and confidence in writing increases with experience; experience is limited if a student only learns to write formal essays. Students will learn to notice and correct conventional errors more easily if they have experience with a vast assortment of writing styles.
Also, effective writing instruction turns students into lifelong learners, providing them with lasting habits. It seems when students learn just for the test, the information is plainly memorized and then forgotten, never grasped.
The change from teaching for learning to teaching for test results is a narrowing of the curriculum (Higgins 310). With a narrower curriculum, students are actually learning far less, and teachers are deskilled (Ricci 343). So it’s time to take a stand. Balance best practices and testing requirements. Instruct writing and reading freely, encourage creativity, and simultaneously teach mechanical conventions and the necessary rules of the English language. “Fluent, independent writers” (Higgins 315) develop when we teach effective practices, not when we simply ”teach to the test.”
Higgens, Betty, & Miller, Melinda & Wegmann, Susan. (2006). Teaching to the Test…Not! Balancing Best Practices and Testing Requirements in Writing. International Reading Association, 60(4), 310-319.
Ricci, Carlo. (2004). The Case Against Standardized Testing and a Call for a Revitalization of Democracy. The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 339-346