An e-mail a student sent me a few days ago caught me totally off-guard.  I had to read the e-mail several times before I totally understood the overall message she was trying to send.

She was thanking me.

I'm not used to that, especially during this school year.  As a matter of fact, I think lots of teachers are caught off-guard by student "thank-yous," because we're so used to coping with the deluge of complaints that come our way about what we do, what we don't do, and how we go about making the process of teaching our own.

At first I was relieved this wasn't another student complaint e-mail.  Then I was impressed that this student took the time to write me a thank-you e-mail (even if it was during class time).  After that, I was happy that at least I did one thing right this year.  But now, some uncomfortable questions have come to mind concerning what exactly she was thanking me for doing.  On the surface, she was thanking me for helping her be more successful at completing the Science Reasoning test on her practice ACT she took this week.  An excerpt from her e-mail is below:

"If you never showed us the trend arrows and to skip the unnecassary junk I would've literally died. But I did the trend arrows and skipped the words and it saved me sooooooo much time!"

You see, our high school isn't meeting AYP--and we haven't for the last 3 years.  This means that we are under a lot of pressure from the state of Illinois to get kids' scores up, despite the fact that each student learns differently and at different rates....and despite the fact that the bulk of the science portion of the state standardized test aims to see if our students know lots of inconsequential and useless information, such as what the name of the device is for measuring wind speed, or how many galaxies there are in the universe.   

But the other part of the science portion of our state test is the ACT Science Reasoning test.  (In Illinois, the ACT test is administered to all juniors on day one of testing, and the ISBE-developed test is administered on day two.  How I feel about the ACT test--a test that wasn't designed for everyone to take--being given to all juniors in the state of Illinois will be reserved for another very bitter and lengthy post.)  This is the test to which my student was referring in her e-mail.  All year, I did something called "FACT Fridays," where we did one practice ACT passage every Friday at the suggestion of our ACT consultant, John Baylor.  Having taught an ACT prep class or two, I taught them little tips, tricks, and test-taking strategies for doing well on these passages, and some of the ultra-jerky ways the ACT question writers try to trip them up.  I taught them to not read all the words, to analyze trends in the data quickly, get the main point of the data, and move on to answering questions.

In other words, I taught them some test-taking skills.  I taught them to be prepared instead of intimidated. I taught them to be fast and furious, because you only have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions, and you get better scores for answering questions, not reading the passage.  I taught them to go, go, go, move, move, move, find the main ideas, answer those questions, get a better score, that almighty number on the test is what you're working for, kiddos.

In other words, I am afraid I taught them the very educational ideals that I am so very, very much against.  I  prepared them for tests that don't measure anything I consider to be even remotely important about student learning.

Guilt is now what I feel when I read that e-mail.  Guilt over the fact that this student is thanking me for helping her speed through a test, rather than thanking me for helping her increase her capacity for learning.  But it's guilt tempered with a feeling of, "What else am I supposed to do in order to jump through the AYP hoops the government sets up for us?" I can't not prepare my students for tests that are, unfortunately, used to determine some aspects of a student's academic future.

Herein lies the cognitive dissonance I'm experiencing regarding my fundamental role as a teacher and standardized testing: I believe that student learning and helping students learn how to learn should be my primary focus, but I also am forced to believe that preparing students for standardized testing (tests that, in my opinion, that don't measure true learning in any way) is something I have to do in order to help them be successful.  It's the classic struggle between the ideal vs. reality.  This cognitive dissonance is just one of the many unintended consequences inflicted upon education by the standardized-testing movement.

But I am very grateful for the thank-you.  I am glad that this student saw an improvement in her abilities, and realized that practicing test-taking skills will make her a better test-taker (and hopefully her increased speed was also accompanied by accuracy!). 

I just wish that she was thanking me for something that, to me, actually matters regarding true learning and understanding.



04/30/2011 13:52

Thank you for this very clear description of the consequences on teaching of excessive focus on standardized testing. Here in Australia, we have been flirting with increasing the level of our testing - hopefully we will pull back from the brink before it gets this ridiculous.

04/30/2011 16:11

I felt this exact feeling last week during AIMS in Arizona. Such a strange balance...but is my classroom balanced? Thank you for this!

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