Thursday, April 03, 2008

Taking Testing to the Next Level

The school district I sub in is doing their annual testing this week. So last week and the week before that, I was in several classrooms that were preparing for the testing. How? By taking a test that was virtually identical in form to the tests that are being given this week. I am assuming that the specific content is different, but I do not know that first hand, as I haven't seen the real tests.

But last week, at any rate, I was specifically teaching to the test. This is something that has always held a negative implication in my mind. If you teach to the test, you restrict the experiences of the students to those that can be tested. You focus their attention on filling in bubbles and giving back answers in format and content like those that will be expected on the tests. To my mind, it was a bit like saying to students, "This is the only thing that is important and if you can spew back information in this form you pass."

Only, last week, I saw that the kids actually needed this. Maybe it is because they aren't taught like this all of the time or maybe it is because they only take tests seriously, not their everyday assignments, but the practice tests actually helped. The part that I am thinking of that helped the most was the part containing the constructed response reading questions. One of the questions read something like: "Compare these two characters (from the reading). Tell about two ways they are similar and two ways they are different. Use information from the passage to support your writing." Now, in general, I have found that when kids are asked to write answers to questions such as this, they ignore most of the directions. They usually read only the first sentence of the directions, e.g., Compare these two characters. And then they start writing. Typical answers will be only ONE sentence, e.g., Character X is taller than character Y.

So, one of the things I did with the kids was to make them read ALL of the directions. Then I had them underline the important parts of the directions, e.g., TWO similarities, TWO differences, information from passage to support writing. After doing this, I had them actually write their answers. Then we went back and had students read their answers and we checked to see if they fulfilled the requirements. Most did not. So we kept at it until the kids had a decent idea of what constituted an acceptable answer to the question.

I came away thinking that teaching to the test might not be such a bad idea, as long as the tests have such worthy questions. Maybe the practice tests are a way of teaching the teachers how to pay better attention to some things that need to be taught, but are sometimes lost in doing workbook pages and scripted lessons.

And, in general, I have found that asking kids to read the directions for any specific assignment is a much needed intervention skill. Time and time again, I have found that simply asking the kids to read directions for an assignment will answer their questions about what to do and even how to do it. You would think that it would be obvious, but it is a standard joke in educational circles to point out that even adults don't read directions. Give a group of adults a list of things that they are to do, with the direction at the top that they are to read the entire list before doing anything. Then make the last thing on the list, "Do NOT do any of the things on this list, just sign your name and turn your paper over." Then stand by and watch as most of them do each thing at the top of the list, until someone discovers the final instruction and laughs.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Career Path in Education

I am a substitute teacher - partly by choice, partly due to circumstances. I was talking to a regular teacher today and I mentioned how much perspective a substitute teacher gets through seeing lots of other classrooms and dealing with a wide range of kids. This led to the idea that, perhaps the best thing for new teachers to do would be to sub for a while, before taking or getting offered a full time position. What a good way to view many different ways of classroom management, to get familiar with the ages and stages of a wide range of students, and to see how different buildings and different staffs operate. Even with the best of student teaching programs, this is usually not possible.

Requiring new teachers to sub a year or two, in fact, might be a solution to another problem, too: as a sub, I do not make enough money to live on. Even though my school district pays more than any other school district I have subbed in previously, last year, I only made $11,000 gross. If I had subbed every single school day possible, I would have made less than $21,000. Considering that there are no benefits in connection with this job - no health insurance, no sick leave, etc., it is not enough money to live on. Thus subs are generally either retired teachers or people who depend on spouses or others for health insurance and other benefits. If new teachers were hired as full time teachers, although staffed to substitute positions, they could make enough money to live on and good teachers might not be marginalized out of the profession before they even get started.

I suppose there are logistical problems: what do you do with subs that aren't needed? what do you do when you need more subs than you have? how do you pay for full time teacher subs? would it work to pay new teachers at a teacher pay scale rate, but only for days that they work?

I will have to think about it more. But I do think requiring new teachers to sub for a year or two is a good idea. It gives them a much better perspective on the different variables involved.