Common Core: Veteran Educator Urges Teachers To 'Teach To The Test'

The phrase "teach to the test" should not evoke negativity, mediocrity or outrage from teachers, parents, or students. I taught for 25 years in public schools and I spent part of each year teaching to the test, in my case the SAT and ACT, and I have no regrets. My students gained admission to first rate colleges, graduated on time, and did not have to take remedial courses, a shameful fate of over 25 percent of college freshman today.

I did all this and still had time to teach important literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Mahabharata, The Tao Te Ching, Things Fall Apart, and The Kite Runner.

Just what is on these dreaded "standardized tests" that are accused of destroying education and wasting classroom time? The SAT, ACT, and college placements tests ask questions on grammar such as subject-verb agreement, proper tense, and correct pronoun use; reading skills including comprehension of non-fiction, high level vocabulary, and critical thinking; and writing skills like the ability to write several paragraphs that present a point of view and offer evidence to back up the argument. I for one think that these things should be taught in English class whether they're on the tests or not, and I have no problem admitting that I spent time teaching them.

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The new Common Core standards are bringing a new generation of tests next year that are already being touted by teachers, parents, and politicians as the apocalypse of education in America. These tests will measure skills like reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge and the ability to write a cogent argument or present an opinion with evidence to support the proffered point of view. How are these skills not important? They are the basic skills required for college, career, and life. So why aren't they already being taught as part of the curriculum?

Many English teachers spend most classroom time talking about literature instead of teaching reading and writing. Their classes are run like book clubs, and while book clubs are wonderful social constructs, they are not what should be conducted in our schools.The same teachers spend a lot of time preparing their students to pass their tests on the literature they talk about and it's very easy for students to earn high grades on these tests without even reading the books! One English teacher remarked to me that she just wants to close her classroom door, read stories to her students, and then ask them what they got out of the tales she read to them. This is how she saw her job.

Students memorize character names, storylines, and themes of great literature, as told to them by their English teachers but still don't read and can't read well, write coherently, or speak from knowledge.

One fifth grade teacher blogged his opposition to the new tests, complaining that they will prevent him from covering Shakespeare. Really? Fifth graders should be learning about Shakespeare if they can't read or write on grade level? He also predicted that good teachers would now flee from education because of the new tests. If teachers want to leave, could it be because they can no longer run book clubs and will actually have to teach skills?

Those who would condemn the new tests as relying on rote memorization have apparently not looked at the tests. I've read through all of the releases of the new tests and there is not one question based on rote memorization. I have also taken many full length SAT and ACT tests and, again, not one question is based on rote memorization.

No one seems to have a problem with teaching to the test when it's the State Bar Exam, the Certified Public Accountant test, or the Fundamentals of Engineering Assessment. In fact we celebrate the passing of these tests. I celebrate my students acing the SAT or ACT. I will also rejoice when they score well on the new Common Core tests. I see nothing wrong with that.

There could be many teachers out there who feel the same as I but are afraid to speak up. I've been verbally attacked many times for voicing my opinion and made to feel unethical when I endorsed spending time teaching what is on the tests. I was seen, and felt, that I was somehow against literature that is untrue. I value and cherish literature as much as my colleagues but English classes should take some time away from the book clubs to present lessons that cover what is on important tests. Toward this end, though, we must give teachers the tools and training they need to change the paradigm of education.

Because thousands of students are unable to pass a simple college placement test, or perform well on the SAT or ACT, they are doomed to take remedial college courses which has turned into an almost $3 billion business, and even with an expenditure of that magnitude, too many students are still unlikely to graduate The courses are being subsidized at state and community colleges, students are squandering their financial aid money on them, and they are a blot on our educational system, all because teachers refuse to teach the skills that are on standardized tests.

Parents of high-schoolers spend millions of their own money every year on tutors, test prep classes, and on-line programs to teach their children what's on the tests and those fortunate students have a higher rate of success in getting into college and graduating with four year degrees. These successes can be attributed to outside help and not mainstream public education.

The maelstrom of educational decline can be staunched and it begins in the English classes in every school in America because that is where reading and writing is taught, so that is where thinking is learned.

I am a teacher, parent, and taxpayer and I say we should teach to the test.

Jeanne Clements directs the formation of the first Association of Language Arts Teachers of America, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the strength, beauty and power of the English language and Language Arts education.

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