Exams aren’t the enemy

Exams Aren’t the Enemy, writes Talmadge Nardi, a high school English teacher, in The Atlantic.

We must continue to be passionate and skillful teachers of critical thinking, writing and reading. And we must also continue to test our students. I am convinced that the combination of the two is what leads my students to success.

Nardi teaches at the Academy of the Pacific Rim (APR), a Boston charter school where three-quarters of students are black or Hispanic and a majority come from low-income families. The school ranks very high on the 10th-grade English MCAS, Massachusetts’ standardized exam.

I do virtually no explicit test preparation with my students. What I do instead is teach intensive reading, writing, and critical thinking skills to prepare them for my 11th and 12th-grade college-style seminars and beyond.

Since the MCAS is a handwritten test, she requires handwritten essays so students practice writing clearly and getting by without spellcheck. She also teaches them how to handle multiple-choice questions and how to much to write on essay questions. She reviews the plots and characters of books read in class so students will be prepared to write about a book for the long essay. But it doesn’t take much time and can be useful long after they’ve taken the MCAS, Nardi writes.

Part of college and career readiness is getting ready for exams. The MCAS, for example, is both a skill and an endurance test, and it prepares students to take tests of basic content knowledge–the kind of tests most professionals have to slog through to get to where they are. My students will have to take many such tests to gain access to professional fields like medicine, law, teaching and accounting.

Testing is Good for Teachers and Children, argues Matt Barnum on Dropout Nation. As a teacher, half of his evaluation was based on student performance on as many as five standardized assessments a year. “We knew where we stood in terms of performance, and so did our students,” he writes.

Testing helps students achieve mastery by making it possible to learn from mistakes, adds the editor. It also helps teachers and schools diagnose and address learning issues.


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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    “Testing helps students achieve mastery by making it possible to learn from mistakes, adds the editor. It also helps teachers and schools diagnose and address learning issues.”

    This is true if the same material is covered test after test. However, by the time students are in high school, most courses are organized in units. There will probably be a quiz or two and then a unit test, but after that the unit’s material won’t be seen again until a midterm or final (assuming the course has a midterm or final). Without any conscious decision, most grade-conscious students develop a strategy of cram and forget.

    • It has been proven that teaching to the test never works, not only do the students forget the material as soon as the test is passed, they don’t develop the thinking and analysis skills they will need later on in college, a trade school, or in the workforce.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I don’t think it has been at all proven that “teaching to the test never works.” What I do think has been fairly well established is that information which a student is not interested in and which does not get used will be forgotten, whether there is a test or not.

        This can be said of most of the information students are expected to pick up in high school (and college).

      • GEORGE LARSON says:

        Never works?

        I doubt that. I stil know the major battles of the 100 Years War are Sluys, Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt.

        I believe the armed forces make a big deal about teaching the conditions and standards along with the facts and techniques required, then drill their troops till the battle drills seem automatic. Based on past history it seems to work for them.

  2. Mike in Texas says:

    We typically receive test results the last week of the school year. How is that supposed to help us diagnose and address learning issues?

    Matt Barnum was a Teach for Awhile, and is no longer teaching.