It’s about passing tests


“School isn’t about learning, it’s about passing tests.”

That was a comment I overheard from a ninth grade student recently.

Sadly, she’s right. At least in most schools and classrooms. Including mine.

The damaging impacts of high-stakes tests on teaching and learning are real. Personally, it has dramatically impacted my career over the last ten years. I’m brainwashed by these tests. Really. My lessons begin and end with thoughts of the NYS Regents exams. If it’s not on the test, I don’t teach it.

Through all this, do my kids learn mathematics? Probably. I can’t say for sure. But do they learn how to take tests on mathematics? Definitely. Make no mistake, there’s a widening divide between these two abilities.

This is not to say that tests themselves are necessarily the problem. They aren’t. In fact, there’s research that shows that tests can actually promote learning. Take a unit exam or exit slip, for example. In my case, students often complete these assessments individually. If students don’t do well, they can retake at any time, for any reason. There’s no pressure to do well on the first go around. You don’t get it? No big deal. Let’s find our weakness, improve, and try again. The focus of these assessments is learning.

This can’t be said for high-stakes tests. And herein lies my headache.

I know this is nothing new. I’m simply echoing the voices of millions of teachers all around this country. Ironically, though, what motivated this post wasn’t the countless adversaries of high-stakes tests, but the voice of one ninth grade student. She believes the purpose of school is to prepare her to fill in bubbles with a #2 pencil. This really bothers me.

The fact that she has devalued learning in the school setting – and reduced it to passing a test – is deeply troubling. And I know she’s not alone. It makes me seriously question how I’m contributing to this high-stakes epidemic.



Data driven structure for exam prep

Item Analiysis

I have a Regents prep course (basically students that need to pass a New York State math exam in order to graduate) that I have been teaching all semester. These students are about six weeks away from the exam. I’ve decided to adopt a new structure to help them get over the hump of passing it. These kids are a challenging bunch, but their attendance is solid and they have good attitudes.

Every Monday, starting this past Monday, I will give them a simplified mock Regents exam. This will essentially be a diagnostic: it will not effect their final report card grade. My students usually buy into this pretty well. I will use the results of this assessment to identify which concepts we will focus on for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. During these days my co-teacher I will reteach and review these concepts, pretty much one concept a day to keep it simple and bite size. The following Monday we will repeat this process with an exam and using the rest of the week to tackle four more concepts (hopefully not needing to repeat those that we had previously relearned).

This targeted, structured, data-driven approach is something I’ve been seeking for this class for a little while. I’m consistently using data analysis for all my classes and I knew I was going to take this approach with them, I just didn’t know how it would look. Now I do.

After looking at the data from today’s exam a short time ago and mapping out the concepts for the week, I am really excited for the benefit this structure could provide my students.

Concepts for the first week:
1. Identifying trigonometric ratios from a given right triangle
2. Translating verbal statements into mathematical expressions
3. Basic operations on polynomials
4. Writing equations of lines and their graphs

Ready. Set. Go.