Teaching to the Test
- Author: Laura, Teacher
- State: NY
- Test: All Tests
- Date: August 6 at 12:34 am ET
When it comes to US language policy it seems that English Language learners (ELLs) are often treated as an afterthought, despite the fact that there are so many of them struggling their way through our school systems. As a fifth grade ESL teacher this really hits home for me, and can be quite disheartening, since you always have your students’ best interests at heart. It always comes down to decisions: Do I disservice my students by shortchanging their education so they can pass the test? or Do I shortchange them by not covering enough of what’s in the test? It may sound a bit blunt, but that is the reality of it, and either way you look at it, the only word I can think of to describe what is happening to these students is “disservice.” Because of the “one-size-fits-all” (Menken) nature of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the quality of education we are able to provide for our ELL students is really suffering.
The New York State Regents exams, as well as the state exams given at the lower grades are not an appropriate representation of student knowledge, because these tests were meant to assess native English speakers. In that sense, these tests, especially the English Regents, are more assessments of English proficiency than anything else. At the time NCLB was enacted, the special needs of ELLs were clearly not accounted for. These students require a number of years to really learn academic English, and they are often pushed out of the specialized programs they need way too prematurely. Since the exam reads more like a language arts test, the instruction provided to ELLs has evolved to reflect this. ESL classes now seem more like “English language arts classes for native speakers,” (Menken) than the foundational classes they should be. I can speak of this from personal experience. A big part of the academic year was spent on teaching specific essay formats, and keywords to help students navigate through the test. My students even learned about the best approach to a multiple choice test, how to bubble in correctly, and how to mark their papers so that they would not skip any answers by mistake. They learned not to take too much time on an uncertain question, and they learned what words to look for in the questions to figure out what skill the question was referring to. It was all very strategic, but how authentic and helpful in the “real world” are these strategies I teach? What other things could my students have been learning? It certainly was not fun for them to be drilled for hours, and I did not have to ask them to figure that out, one look at their faces would tell it all.
In her research on teaching to the test, Menken studied a number of schools, interviewed a number of teachers, administrators, and students, and found a number of interesting findings. It seems that although the approaches may be different, the motivation is the same: get students to pass the test. Some schools taught only in English, some schools taught only in Spanish, with varying degrees of success, but the finding was the same; regardless of the changes in language instruction, “Regents exams determine the language policy in New York City high schools.” (Menken) It is not a matter of which approach will suit these students best, it’s a matter of which approach will produce the best test results.
With this in consideration, I can’t help but wonder, what happens after the test? Yes the students will pass the grade, and possibly graduate, but what happens after? Without the foundational skills strongly in place, how will these students fair in the long run? Are we just developing, as my high school chemistry teacher used to put it, “trained seals”? Will these students develop the passion for education that we so wish to instill in them? Are they learning everything they can and should learn? Or are we just releasing into the world numerous jacks of all trades who are experts of none? Because truly, the research into these different schools showed what we all suspected, and what we all are experiencing first hand. Schools are narrowing the curriculum to “teach to the test,” if it is “off topic,” that is, if it is not in the test, it just sort of gets abridged or cut off entirely. (Menken) Students are only touching the surface of all that there is to learn. As one student put it, “you just get into something, but by the time you start enjoying it, it’s over.” (Menken) Although the common core standards advocate for “learning more about less,” I would say the reality would show that we are doing just the opposite. If the situation is not corrected promptly it will become an epidemic, maybe then the folks up top will realize there’s a problem.