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ThreeSixty: The Great Debate: Does prepping for standardized tests pay off?

ThreeSixty Editor’s note: There is much discussion about standardized tests and how much prepping helps students raise their good scores. Unfortunately, we students — who are most directly affected by the tests — usually aren’t part of the conversation. Although our test scores don’t affect us individually, they can have a big impact on our schools — particularly under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which can influence schools’ funding, leadership, even their survival.

Before students are asked to break the seal on their test booklets, teachers usually give us a pep talk. “Do your best,” they’ll say. “These tests will have a great impact on you. It’s really important you do well.”

Why must we take these tests? Why do we spend so much class time preparing? My teachers have said little more than, “You have to take it because the state requires it.” I’ve never been satisfied with this answer, so I decided to investigative more deeply so we all can better understand something that has such a huge impact on our education.

Here’s what I learned.

What students say
Many students feel frustrated that so much class time is used to go over practice materials. “My class spent about three or four months preparing for these tests,” said Casey Haarstad, an eighth grader at Chaska Middle School East.

This may seem like a lot, but it’s not unusual. Mary Beth Kruyer, a South High School freshman, said her class at Marcy Open prepped the whole quarter before the test.

A lot of the drilling is repetitive and wastes time, they complain. “I don’t like the fact that the preparation does not teach us anything and wastes valuable time we could have used to advance much farther,” Haarstad said.

Some students say prepping for tests means taking time away from deeper learning. “By teaching to the test, we don’t learn real-world application,” said Hannah Nemer, a sophomore at Henry Sibley High School in West St. Paul.

Often, test prep means practicing how to properly answer multiple choice and fill in the bubbles. “Most of what we learned was how to be good test takers,” said Brett Campbell, a freshman at Avalon Charter School in St. Paul.

What school authorities say
Time and time again, teachers prepare students for reading tests by telling them how to pick apart the text and look for meaning. Research shows that teaching reading comprehension isn’t that simple. In one study, researchers had junior high students — both good and poor readers — read text describing a half-inning of a baseball game. Students who were poor readers but knowledgeable about baseball performed better than good readers who had little knowledge about baseball.

David Heistad, executive director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment for Minneapolis Public Schools, says that text preparation in large amounts is “counterproductive.” He strongly discourages teachers from doing too much. “The best way to learn [reading comprehension] is to read a diversity of books. For math, keep up with daily assignments,” Heistad said.

Dirk Mattson, director of assessment and testing for the Minnesota Department of Education, agrees. “The best way to demonstrate an increase in scores is to provide effective instruction on the content covered in the assessments,” he said via e-mail. Mattson also points out that teachers aren’t required to do test prep. While they may feel pressured to cover testing materials in advance, “Test preparation is not a requirement by the state.”

What teachers say
Although teachers aren’t required to spend class time preparing students to take standardized tests, they feel intense pressure to raise their students’ scores so that their schools compare well with others and meet the requirements for annual progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“There was a definite pressure from [colleagues, administrators and the district] that it needs to be done and should be done to bring up test scores and get students appropriate materials to be prepared,” said Tara FitzGerald, a math teacher at South High School in Minneapolis. FitzGerald had her students do practice test problems once a week, and then did daily preparations for three to four weeks prior to the test.

Another source of pressure comes from competition among high schools. Because schools’ scores are showcased in the newspaper, schools compete for the best test scores “…so that people [will want to] come here,” FitzGerald said.

Some teachers take a different approach. “I kind of prepared all year,” said Martha Spriggs, a math teacher at Anderson Open School. “I didn’t specifically devote one whole class period to preparing for the tests…Instead I did a ‘Problem of the Week’ that were a lot like the test questions.” Spriggs said she did have to attend a few workshops about teaching preparations for the math tests, but “I didn’t feel like I had to change anything.”

Spriggs agrees that the push for test prep comes from worry about the school’s ranking. “I don’t feel like [teachers who do test prep] get pressure from principals, but we do kind of feel pressure from the whole No Child Left Behind thing.”

Liz Athorn, a math teacher at Anwatin Middle School, said it comes down to the kids, not the scores. “Really, what we’re trying to do is not get their scores up, but increase their literacy… We shouldn’t be spending so much time on the tests that we’re neglecting what we’re really there for, which is to teach.”

My view: It seems that in the scramble to raise scores, people have really lost sight of what’s important. These tests, originally meant to gauge student progress and help kids who are struggling, are now used to judge of “good” schools and “bad” schools, “good” teachers and “bad” teachers. Test prep has sometimes become the substitute for real learning and scores can define a school. In some cases, schools have been too focused on numbers and not enough kids.

I learned so much from reporting on standardized testing. Not only did I learn the tests’ purposes and significance in education, but I learned that if you want to know something, you have the right to ask a question (or a few!) and get answers. Especially since I’m a student who’s most affected by the tests, I have a right to know what’s going on. But you do have to ask questions, because sometimes the information isn’t all laid out in front of you.

Annie Wood is a freshman at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.

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