On Thursday, February 2, 2012, Dr. Wardynski, in his monologue, had this to say about my comments when I mentioned in passing that teachers weren’t simply teaching to the test:
Uh, those who claim that testing, we teach to the test, that testing is not a valuable resource simply do not know what they are talking about. There is no way to test, to take, to teach to the STAR test. It’s a computive, computer-adaptive test in which every child will face a different question. And the questions aren’t the kind you can teach to. If you don’t know algebra, you can’t teach to answering an algebra question. If you don’t know how to factor an equation, you can’t teach to answering a question like that. If you can’t read, we can’t teach you what the paragraph said, cause you haven’t seen the paragraph. And so we’re after the business of literacy and numeracy. Uh, we’re taking a very strategic approach to raising the proficiency of our children, and our excellent teachers are responding.
Wow, where to begin.
It’s important to note that I didn’t claim in my statement that the district was teaching to the test. What I actually said was:
It’s [a love for education] what motivates Mrs. Dodson to take on extra work of evaluating additional assignments like poetry writing projects to encourage advanced students to continue to grow beyond merely the requirements of the test.
Perhaps he was reacting to others’ comments that claim that when testing is the single method of evaluation offered for both students and teachers, then our classrooms set education aside in deference to teaching to the test. While I didn’t say this on Thursday night, it is a problem that I recognize. If the score on the test is the only metric by which we evaluate student and teacher performance, then the test takes the highest priority in the classroom.
It becomes more important than critical thought.
It becomes more important than critical analysis of ideas.
It becomes more important than guided social development.
It becomes more important than intellectual curiosity.
In short, teaching to the test leaves a whole world of education in the dark. You can read more about what standardized tests do and do not cover in The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do.
But with his decades of experience in education, Dr. Wardynski wants you to know that “those who claim we teach to the test, that testing is not a valuable resource simply do not know what they are talking about.”
That’s right. Dr. Wardynski thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about. Thank you sir, that’s high praise coming from you.
So let’s look at his argument to see if Dr. Wardynski is right or not.
The Straw Man Fallacy
It’s always useful, when you enter into a debate with someone, to have an opponent who says something that’s easy to rip apart. Sadly, sometimes we enter into debates with people who aren’t stupid. When this happens, one common method of attack is to set up a straw man that’s easy to knock down. This is a useful technique as typically if you can show that your opponent is wrong on one point, then those listening to the debate will assume that your opponent is wrong on all points. But when your opponent doesn’t give you an easy target, well then you can just create your own.
This is the straw man fallacy. Claim that your opponent has claimed something that is false, even when he or she hasn’t.
Despite Dr. Wardynski’s claims, no reasonable person is claiming that “testing is not a valuable resource.” Every educator knows that testing does have value. But every educator also knows that no matter how fantastic the test is, the test is but one of many methods needed to evaluate education. You’re claiming that your opponents are speaking in absolutes when it is in fact you who are elevating the test to the level of absolute in student performance, in teacher performance, and in school performance.
I am not claiming that the test has no value. I am simply claiming that the test does not have absolute value.
Knowing What You’re Talking About
Dr. Wardynski then goes own to offer an impassioned defense of how it would be impossible to teach to the STAR test. He says:
There is no way to test, to take, to teach to the STAR test. It’s a computive, computer-adaptive test in which every child will face a different question. And the questions aren’t the kind you can teach to. If you don’t know algebra, you can’t teach to answering an algebra question. If you don’t know how to factor an equation, you can’t teach to answering a question like that. If you can’t read, we can’t teach you what the paragraph said, cause you haven’t seen the paragraph.
His argument seems to be that since no one sees the actual questions ahead of time, that it would be impossible to teach to the test. He’s arguing for the security of the STAR test and in doing so, he shows that he doesn’t understand teaching, testing or teaching to the test at all.
I do so love situational irony.
Let’s see if we can help him out here a little. If a teacher knows, as he claimed in his “we’re not teaching to the test speech” that her students are going to be tested on algebra, then a teacher knows that spending time talking about geometry is a waste of time, even if the students raise questions that are geometry questions. If a teacher knows that the test questions are based on the ability to remember details from a paragraph, then a teacher knows that spending time talking about the meaning of a paragraph is less important than talking about the content of the paragraph.
Teaching to the test doesn’t require knowing exactly what questions will be asked on a test. That’s cheating, not teaching to the test.
Teaching to the test means that a teacher knows that the test will cover 10 mathematical concepts, and so the entire focus of the class is then directed toward mathematical concepts ignoring the other questions or pathways that might arise from classroom discussion, questions, or as I mentioned above, intellectual curiosity.
In short, Dr. Wardynski has once again demonstrated his failure to understand the educational process.
Education is More than Testing
Let me see if I can finish with an example of what I am talking about here.
I teach, among other things, a Survey of the New Testament class. In this class, we review the historical underpinnings and development of the New Testament. One of the final assignments in the class is to write an argumentative research essay on what the New Testament has to say about a controversial subject such as abortion, homosexuality, poverty, whatever the student wishes to study.
This is the test that the students must complete. It tests their ability to use resources they’ve been exposed to in the class. It tests their ability to use various methods of Biblical criticism that we’ve discussed in the class. It tests their ability to discuss Scripture intelligently and reasonably.
One semester, I had a student who just couldn’t get her mind around the assignment. She had been struggling all semester, her writing was, to be frank, terrible, and I was to the point of suggesting to her that perhaps trying the class again at a time when her personal life wasn’t interfering with her education might make the class and the assignments easier. You see, her child was dying, and the idea of debating Scripture just wasn’t connecting with her.
But while talking to each other, I discovered that she did have an extensive interest in Mary, Jesus’ mother. She felt connected to her and her loss of her son, especially at that moment in her life. So since I had been the one to design the test, and since I have the freedom to find a student’s interest and run with it, I was able to redesign the assignment into a research essay on Mary.
This student, who had had difficulty even stringing together three sentences in a coherent way, wrote the best essay of the class, and in fact, one of the best essays I have received since. She was getting the learning objectives of the class, and once the test was modified to the student, she was able demonstrate that to me.
Education must be a personal, direct experience between the teacher and the student. When a district determines the test, the curriculum, and what’s important for a student to accomplish, they are taking education out of the hands of the teachers and students, and putting it into the hands of politicians and private companies who sell the test.
We should, we must teach to the student not to the test.
A hyper-emphasis on testing results in an educational system where neither the teacher nor the student actually matter.