April is test-prep month (apparently). So, what better use of my blog than to provide harried readers with some test-prep tips?
But beware: the tips I am going to provide are very different than the thoughtless and passive-aggressive ones you get from most people offering such tips.

  1. “I’d love to teach for understanding, but there’s so much to ‘cover’ for the test.” Huh? You have to teach badly to raise test scores??? Here is what you are really saying when you say that: “Gee I’d like to teach for understanding, but I can’t; I’d like to make sure that students are really engaged in their work, and that they really see the value and connections to other learnings – but we don’t have time for that…” Well, then don’t be surprised if they aren’t engaged, can’t connect what they learn, and thus don’t do well on the test.There is no data to suggest that teaching worse raises scores; there is no data to suggest that superficially covering content improves student performance. (In fact, as Hattie and Marzano point out, there is plenty of data to show that a constant dose of higher-order questioning locally raises test scores considerably.)  Alas, the current results (especially NAEP which is a harbinger of the new consortium tests) show that students do poorly on all but the low-level questions on the tests; and that student performance on higher-order questions has been flat for decades.
  2. “Well, the state test is all multiple-choice, so all my tests should be multiple choice.” Huh? That makes no sense. You are confusing the format with the rigor. In fact, a great case can be made for using few multiple choice questions in your own class tests all year – in the same way that coaches prepare you for the rigors of games by making you work far harder in practice than any game will demand. The other error in such thinking is that it deceives you into thinking that since you are mimicking the format of the test that you are therefore mimicking the rigor of the test.But data show the opposite conclusively: local tests are often less rigorous than state and national tests even when they mimic the format. (See my blog here and see Driven by Data for some examples.) A majority of state and national test questions involve multi-step inference. Few local tests do so. So students are doubly unprepared for challenging tests when teachers just mimic format locally.
  3. “We practice the test all the time, so they are ready…” Huh? The test is not what you should be practicing; meeting the standards is what you should be practicing because the tests change every year. Practicing the test all year is like practicing the doctor’s physical exam all year instead of getting in shape all year: you are confusing cause and effect. Fine, show the test and its format, and do some practice once or twice. But as mentioned above, what students need practice in is meeting Standards at very high levels so that when they get ot the test it will seem relatively easy.
  4. “We need to spend weeks doing test prep to be ready for the test.” Huh? Is this what they do at the BEST schools in your state? If we walked through the top schools in America would we see more slavish test prep or less? Then why do those top schools get such good test scores? This also conflates short-term recall with flexible use of material in long-term memory. Doing test prep in April is about six months too late. Increasingly spaced, not massed, practice is the key to moving things into long-term memory, as all the research shows.
  5. “The tests are clearly unfair because our kids do so much worse on them than our local results indicate.” Huh? That’s like saying the soccer game is unfair since the results don’t reflect what I see in practice every day. See points 2 and 3 above: most state tests are more rigorous than local tests, even in pretty good districts (based on our audit of such tests for numerous districts). What’s happening to your test results is the same thing that happens in soccer: you are confusing the (simpler) drills with the (transfer demands of the) game. The majority of questions on every ELA test, for example, are testing for transfer of learning, not recall. That’s why the student gets novel reading passages on external tests, and questions about word meaning in the context of unfamiliar passages. (Most of the vocab. prep work in schools is pointless since it violates what we know about long-term memory and fluency). In math, the majority of the challenging questions involve non-routine or very unfamiliar looks at the content being assessed, by design. Yet, teachers and students often claim that such questions are “unfair” which tips us off to the real problem locally: not signaling to students that the aim is transfer, i.e. the solving of non-routine problems as opposed to the exercises you already learned to solve. This not only fails to prepare your students for transfer of learning, it inhibits it.

Do I like our over-emphasis on tests? I do not. Do I think all the tests are well-designed? I do not. But this I know, from years of looking at all the released tests at the state and national level, and working with staffs on local assessment issues: the results are meaningful in broad brush strokes. Really good schools get good results; really weak schools do not. All difficult questions involve higher-order inferencing. And few local tests match the rigor of state tests. Most educators do not seem to understand what external tests are testing – transfer, not recall. And most educators have an insufficient understanding of how test validity works to properly prepare their students. And so we get “test prep” regimes that cannot possibly succeed at achieving excellent results.
Isn’t it time you worked with colleagues to call into questions these knee-jerk and intellectually bankrupt approaches to dealing with tests? Isn’t it time local assessment was more rigorous than the state once-a-year audit of local performance?
UPDATE: I have uploaded a narrated Powerpoint fleshing out some of these ideas, for use with colleagues. You can find it on the Authentic Education website here.



15 Responses

  1. Great points (as usual). However, one point I would like to bring up is this:
    What I would say is that the top schools perform better on these tests because the tests are too easy for those students. My experiences with standardized tests are that they are not rigorous for top students. To steal a math term the best way to explain how these tests are created is “regression to the mean.”
    In NJ our students take the HSPA. I teach in a top school and the test does not adequately assess our students. I don’t think our students ace the test because we do no test prep and focus only on higher order thinking skills (which is true in our school). I just don’t see how one test can properly assess all levels of students in a state (or country when PARCC begins). I don’t think one size fits all testing has value for students–either those struggling and those achieving.

  2. Studying and practicing for the test is one of the worst ideas ever. The students are expecting those questions on the test – they are never there. Worse (and much worse in my opinion) is how boring and how unexciting that whole process could be in class. How boring is it to sit and answer multiple choice questions all day for weeks? How are the students going to learn more, make connections, be challenged, or communicate with each other during these sessions? How boring is it for a teacher to create these tests and mark them? No wonder those kids and teachers struggle – I would as well if I had to teach/learn from these tests. Wow! No wonder students in those schools are not engaged or care as much about their learning. What is exciting and fun about test prep? What would make a teacher “get to school no matter what” for test prep?
    Students learn from pushing themselves (or being pushed) intellectually. I have never seen an intellectually stimulating M/C practice test. Also, and it needs to be said clearly, the test is not the goal but the measurement/judgement of attaining a goal. You can’t study for a measurement – hence the repeated failures when people try. Some practice with the format is okay, but a teacher can create some extremely thought provoking M/C questions into any assignment. Life is never M/C. At best it’s a M/C with twists, turns, exceptions, and explanations.
    People who teach the test are missing the whole point, and quite frankly it concerns me that those people are teaching our future leaders.

  3. As a parent and education professional (non teacher), I appreciate your efforts to make the best of a bad situation. Certainly, I wish that we could implement your tips. There are road blocks to this implementation that you do not discuss.
    First, the state and district mandate certain test prep formulas. The teachers have very little choice but to implement test prep programs. In FL, this means FCAT prep. We have FCAT workbooks and bell ringers. Everyday the children do “bell ringers” which is FCAT prep. They are given multiple diagnostic tests throughout the year to get practice and also to give information to the teachers about where the education “holes” are in prep for the FCAT. Teachers have been instructed to make sure students know how to take multiple choice tests and can “bubble in” properly.
    Second, teachers, schools, and districts are all measured by how the children do on the tests. The children also sink or swim based on these tests. There is no stone that goes unturned in this pursuit. So, easy to say that there is no need for the rote practice and direct practice activities. It’s much different to do such. When Johnny gets a low mark on FCAT the teacher is in trouble. The teacher will do everything to make sure Johnny at least won’t make a mistake in bubbling technique. That’s the easy fruit to pick.
    Third, it does work. If a child is not able to bubble in on a scantron sheet in 3rd grade, they will fail FCAT. Time must be spent teaching this skill. And now, we are converting to tests on the computer. Time must be spent on the computer so that this isn’t a new concept for students when they are asked to perform. Plus, for FCAT writing, in particular, a formula that is very specific is used to grade the writing. The kids are taught this formula and then voila! they are writing well enough to pass FCAT. This isn’t quality writing but it gets a passing mark on FCAT. For example, the kids were always taught to use an exclamation in their writing- like voila! or bam!. If it is in the writing sample, they get the point. If not, no point. They must be told to do it and have practice with this in order to get the point. All the creative and critical thinking exercises in the world will not get them to add “Bam!” to their writing test. When we test for ridiculous things like this, why are we surprised by the ridiculous exercises in preparation?
    Lastly, the teachers are not choosing to do this. Your tips are well intentioned. However, it implies that the teachers are at fault for doing test prep. It suggests that they can turn on a dime and suddenly change their curriculum and lesson plans. They can just toss out all those “bell ringers” and workbooks. They can ignore the textbooks that all have questions that mirror FCAT. They can ignore pressure to teach “Bam!” to their students. Doing so means they risk their jobs. Doing so means they risk their kids’ progress to the next grade. Doing so means they risk their school’s performance bonus and existence. The risk is exceedingly high. Please, let’s all at least get it straight that teachers did not choose to have high stakes testing. They would not choose to have this. And they have zero to little power to keep boring test prep and diagnostics out of their classrooms.
    Instead, I would love to see you take a strong stand against the high stakes nature of standardized testing. It would be wonderful. We are drowning in test prep in FL. We need more than tips for teachers. Thank you!

    • I appreciate, as usual, your thoughtful concerns, but I fear you missed a key point. The fact that teachers and schools are all measured on how they do on the tests – your point #2 – is not and has never been a reason to engage in foolish practices. It may be human nature to do so, but that is what real leadership is for: to demand that people do the right thing instead of the foolish or fearful thing. Nor do I agree with you about the 4th point. Indeed teachers are choosing to engage in these practices and they are choosing not to choose in the immortal words of J P Sartre. And have done so for decades. Where is the union? Where are lead teachers? Where are Dept Heads? Where are smart people demanding that such practices be carefully investigated? It is fashionable to blame admins but that’s too easy an out that once again makes it seem as if teachers are blameless in all matters educational. EVERYONE is to blame, from the Supt to the classroom teacher if people choose to ignore the Mission, the Standards, the meaningful course goals, and the research. And it is simply wrong to say that they risk their jobs. No one gets fired for purely pedagogical reasons. (And the really good teachers have always just quietly done their thing and been allowed to in most cases). The only people who get fired (or moved) are Principals. Until and unless rank and file teachers, supported by their associations, band together to do the right thing, then the right thing will not happen. I can show you countless districts in which good practices happen, due to admin and teacher leadership. The picture you paint is of an unhealthy district.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Apparently, you do not deal with Florida much. Yes, it is disfunctional. Parents and teachers have been screaming about the problems here in FL for quite a long time now. I point you to the many pages on facebook as example, including the largest Testing is Not Teaching page. We are all culpable in this- I get that. FL voted in the legislators and governor who are pushing this stuff. However, is there indeed much choice on the part of the teacher? I don’t see that they have much choice. But that’s my perspective. How do I form this opinion? Here is my evidence. I leave the reader to decide how much choice the teacher has:
        1. Having been in attendance at SAC and PTO meetings, you clearly see that the sole focus is on test scores as that is all that is discussed and all that is funded. No money is spent without seeing a direct relation to test score improvement. None.
        2. My student comes home with bell ringers everyday. He has a workbook called “FCAT Practice” each year- and they have to do a page a day. I’ve looked at both – on many occasions. It’s rote fCAT practice activities. They are given this by the district and must use it as “portfolio” in evidence.
        3. I have spoken with teachers. They report that they are required to give diagnostic tests (and all the schools and classrooms give these so it’s no choice) from the district. And I have received a calendar showing this. It’s mind boggling. How many? FCAT reading diagnostic: 3 times a year. FCAT math: 3 times a year, FCAT writes (called FL writes): 2 times a year. End of Course exam practice: 2 times a year for each subject. FCAT Science (only in certain grades): 1 -3 times a year. DIagnostic tests are test prep. It takes up class time. And in high school, when one grade is in test prep, all the grades stop and watch movies. And when a test is given- it’s not an hour on one day and done. No. 3 days are planned out with 2 hours blocked off each day. Kids are scheduled to be moved to various test areas (computers) taking turns because there are only 100 computers for 3000 kids. Kids needing accommodations are put together. The teachers are told to not introduce anything new. I’m happy to email you with the calendar if you’d like. In fact, our school is going to block scheduling for the remainder of the year as there is a test given just about everyday until the end of the year. School is basically over at this point. They have had test prep for 3/4ths of the year, now in the last 1/4th they test.
        4. You are right- because you are measured on some foolish criteria does not mean you need to abide by it. But when you are directly told to do that- and given the diagnostic calendar and the workbooks and bellringers and told to do them, you abide.
        5. Where is the union? It’s a right to work state. We do have a union for teachers. They are fighting this. They have little power. Jeb Bush’s Foundation rules FL. One of his “Chiefs for Change” just became our Education Commissioner- Tony Bennett.
        6. Smart people are fighting this. They just have no political power against our state’s political system. We’ve had lots of rallies and protests. I have yet to speak to a parent who is not sick of this FCAT cr*p. Our kids are really missing out. I continue to write to my representatives, attend rallies, etc. But on Monday, April 15th, my child will take a test that will decide what classes he gets to take next year, how well his art teacher performed (all teachers are measured by the reading FCAT), how well his school performed and if it can stay open (or be taken over by a charter operator) and get their extra funding (A+ funds), and if his district will keep their rating. And we have no choice and cannot opt out.
        So, I get your point. We make decisions on our own about what we do. And I applaud teachers who keep test prep to the absolute minimum. However, that minimum is not a small amount. But everything they do is appreciated. I urge them to continue to keep the prep to only the mandated amounts. But the mandated amounts are ridiculous.

        • Unbelievable. Right after I finished writing the above reply, I received a call from an “insider” contact at my child’s school. It would seem that a planned field trip that the class was taking to teach hands on lessons about the subject at hand (ecology) has been cancelled. Why? Because of testing. They tried to reschedule. There are no non-test days left. With the black out days from January to Spring break and then the testing from Spring break to summer, there are no more opportunities for field trips. Not much choice there.

  4. Hi Grant,
    This excellent post shows very well the difference between shallow and deep learning – and some decisions leading to those outcomes. It is a problem larger than test prep, though.
    Focusing on what is urgent (here: test prep before the testing season starts) instead on what is important (here: deep learning and teaching for transfer) indicates a serious disconnect between long-term goals and everyday actions. How did we lose the vision about preparing students for life?
    I am afraid it is easy to fall into this trap when standardization and student performance are emphasized over the learning process. It derives from a mindset of being externally motivated and doing things for a reward, not because they are important or meaningful. In global scale this scary development occurs when for example PISA tests are used as a foundation for creating new curricula.

  5. Reblogged this on Focus on Learning and Achievement and commented:
    This post by Grant Wiggins reminds us that really reading in test prep season really should mean teaching for understanding and transfer as a matter of instructional routine.
    Wiggins writes that “‘test prep’ regimes … cannot possibly succeed at achieving excellent results.” Read his full blog post for insight into what really will work to help our schools and our students achieve excellence!

  6. I am just finishing my second semester in an Inclusive Childhood Masters program. I’ll be in my own classroom as a teacher in a year and have been struggling with the testing and test prep issue. What I have noticed again and again is the “our hands are tied” beliefs/attitudes. “We’ll lose our jobs if we don’t do this.” I’ll be the first to admit my inexperience in the profession, and my optimistic and naive beliefs … but I also can’t help but wonder what would happen if ALL teachers decided to disobey the mandates for test-prep and teaching to the test? Do I believe that ALL teachers (really?) would do this? Absolutely not! However, I do believe that if we could reach a critical mass of teachers who stand up for their beliefs, who choose to stand for their convictions, something would change, the “powers that be” would HAVE to listen! I should add that I am in my mid-40’s (so I’m coming into this profession a little on the late side of things) and still believe that each of us can make a difference, individually AND collectively.
    The further I progress in my program, the more I wrestle with the issues that come up consistently, and the more I believe that we need to think about and answer the question: “What are schools for?” Seth Godin presented this question in a TED talk (http://youtu.be/sXpbONjV1Jc) and I can’t stop thinking about it. How we answer this question dictates how we run our schools, how we facilitate the education of our children. If we want factory schools that mass produce citizens who can (or can’t) “count the dots” as Mr. Godin puts it, so be it. If we believe that we need citizens who can “connect the dots”, again as Mr. Godin puts it, so be it. Our schools reflect our priorities.

  7. Good Afternoon,
    My name is Maegan Badham and I am writing on behalf of the AVID Center (an educational non-profit organization). I would like to inquire about obtaining copyright permission to use this blog post as a learning tool for our Staff Developers at our annual April Training event.

  8. I was just tortured to a sampling of what students are exposed to all day for weeks, no new learning just drill, cram, and regurgitate facts or vocabulary. Even worse, the explanation from the teachers who were observing “we’ll it is the week before spring break, so there really isn’t time to teach anything new.” With that justification we should just blow off 2-3 weeks of school since there will be a holiday break that gets in the way. Pretty discouraging.

  9. …and we teachers who try to keep test prep to a minimum are constantly scrutinized. We suffer innuendo and direct attack that we are too lazy to do the test prep that the kids really “need” to prepare for standardized tests. We are accused of thinking that the ACT test is not important. I was actually hauled in the office a couple of years ago for not doing rote 4th grade ( I teach high school) grammar warmups that were NEVER going to show up on the ACT test for 11th graders….Unfortunately, it was what my department had chosen to do with those first engaging and valuable minutes of class, and initially I was told I had to do it. I decided to think outside the box a bit and got them all caught on copyright violation, so that I wouldn’t have to continue the ridiculous and demeaning activity.
    I have watched our entire department change our entire curriculum to a series of shallow learning activities in order to “cover” what is on a map that one person deemed important. Whenever I suggest any type of testing within our classrooms that does not exactly mirror the ACT, I am shot down immediately. What most people do not understand or want to see is that the tests they are creating locally for their students are far easier than the ACT in every way except format. It is sad to see, and has been the dark night of my teaching soul. In a climate that no longer even has tenure to protect good teachers from the arbitrary whims of those who are more socially and politically powerful in a school district, following our guiding lights as teachers has been difficult.
    I vowed that if I were not hauled into the principal’s office this year for “straying” from the curriculum “map”, I would be even bolder next year and go back to teaching my students those valuable communication skills that I know will carry them through life. I’ve made it to May so fingers crossed….
    Thanks for the inspirational article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *