"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Raising test scores without learning

Sent to the Harold-Tribune, Dec 23, 2009:
Test-Prep: Higher test scores without increased learning
FCAT test preparation will begin earlier at several schools ("This year's FCAT lesson: Plan ahead," Dec. 20). This may raise test scores but it won't help children. All too often, "test preparation" refers to methods of increasing students' test scores without increasing learning (e.g. when to guess, when not; answer easy questions first or questions with higher point values, on true/false tests choose "true" if you are not sure, because most true/false tests have more true answers than false answers, etc).

Raising test scores through test preparation is like claiming you have raised the temperature of the room when all you have done is light a match under the thermometer.
Stephen Krashen

"This year's FCAT lesson: Plan ahead," (Dec 19)
Herald Tribune, Sarasota, FL
By Tiffany Lankes
Published: Sunday, December 20, 2009

Teachers at Sarasota's Brentwood Elementary used to save their FCAT preparations for after the winter holidays.

But lagging reading scores on last year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test prompted the school to start getting ready much sooner this year. They began identifying and offering extra help to struggling students shortly after class started in August.

"We didn't want it to come down to January and we're scrambling," said Principal Michelle Henderson. "This year we just hit the ground running."

Like Brentwood, schools all over the region are already deep in their FCAT preparations, starting remedial classes, intense practice camps and motivational activities earlier in the school year.

The change comes with increasing state and federal pressure to do better on the standardized tests, which determines extra funding, a school's reputation and whether some students get promoted. This year's budget cuts have also forced schools to try to figure out how to get better results with fewer resources.

For many schools, the solution was to begin working with students sooner. Students take the writing FCAT in February. The reading, math and science sections are in March.

Third-graders at risk for failing at Englewood Elementary received letters about two months into the school year that they would no longer attend science and social studies classes. One Manatee County middle school started its weekend FCAT boot camp last month.

"It's never too early," said Omar Edwards, principal of Manatee's Johnson Middle School.

These efforts, however, raise concerns among parents, testing critics and even lawmakers who last year passed a law intended to cut back on how much time schools spend preparing for the FCAT.

"It does seem to fly in the face of what we were at least claiming we were trying to do with that legislation," said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.

Some thought the law, which banned schools from stopping instruction to prep kids for the test, would keep schools from holding activities like pep rallies, drill sessions and boot camps. But that has not been the case. The law allowed exceptions for schools to target students who are behind, give practice tests and even hold motivational activities.

"It didn't change any of the incentives for schools to get ready," said Fitzgerald, adding that the law is nearly impossible to enforce.

"You're saying don't put pressure on the kids, but on the other hand the schools, the students and the teachers are all evaluated by this measure."

Educators also defend their preparations by saying they are not drilling students for the test, just making sure they have the skills they need to succeed academically. The FCAT helps measure that, and preparing students eases the stress level when they sit down to take it.

That is part of the reason Johnson Middle started its voluntary Saturday morning FCAT boot camp last month for students who want some extra practice for the February test.

Students who attend the camp get individual attention from teachers in the areas they most need it.
"We just make them aware of the areas where they need extra help and we work with them on it," said Edwards, the principal.

Last month, parents of Englewood Elementary third-graders at risk for failing the test received letters from Principal Pam Buchanan letting them know their children will receive extra help -- in place of science and social studies.

"Though we believe social studies and science is of great importance, we recognize that reading and math instruction must take priority," Buchanan wrote in the letter.

Buchanan notes that students receiving the extra help will still participate in science labs and that teachers weave science and social studies lessons into their reading instruction.

"Every principal has been charged with making sure every single one of our students is on grade level," Buchanan said. "With all of the state and federal mandates, we have to use every minute wisely."

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