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Great Teaching is the Real Test that Should be Scored

December 04, 2015 - Posted to Study

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Great Teaching is the Real Test that Should be Scored

Every state in this country has a system of measuring student mastery of basic skills. This system is the adoption of state-wide achievement tests which all students must take at various intervals during their academic careers. In some states, students may not pass onto the next grade unless they reach a specific level of proficiency. What probably puts more pressure on both parents and school districts themselves is that the district-wide test scores are published both on the state education department sites but also in all local papers. The whole world then knows.

It has become common practice for districts who want to score well to pressure teachers to “teach to the test,” that is, to specifically target teaching to what they know will be on the test. Unfortunately, because those tests often focus on just basic skills, students are not tested on their ability to solve problems, to think critically, or to analyze, because these are higher level thinking skills that are difficult to assess with typical standardized testing, and even more difficult to grade. The result for students, at least during those years when they will be tested, is that instruction will not focus on those skills which are so critical in the real world.

What districts do not realize is this: If they would focus on these higher level problem-solving skills, especially in math, students would score extremely well on these tests that just focus on the algorithms – the algorithms would be learned as the problem-solving skills are taught. And they would be learned, not just memorized. Here is an example:

When students are taught positive and negative numbers, in most classroom across the country, they memorize the “rules” without any understanding of why. So students learn, for example, the phrase “keep, change, change,” when they are solving subtraction problems with integers that are of different signs. You keep the sign of the top number, change the sign of the umber to be subtracted, and change the sign of the number that is the answer. They do not know why this gets the correct answer, only that it does. When, instead, children are taught why the answer is what it is, they can transfer that knowledge and understanding to real world problems in the future. And, in so doing, they will also do very well on those state tests. And using real-world situations like thermometers, allows students to see that their learning has relevancy to the real world. When relevancy is shown, students internalize their learning and have it for life.

Teaching algebra and geometry have the same options for teachers. They can either teach the rules for solving equations, (what you do to one side, you do to the other; if you want to get rid of a number on one side, you do the opposite operation, and then the same to the other side, etc.). This will allow students to pass a state test with a level of proficiency. It will not, however, demonstrate to students why this solves the equation, nor will it provide them any real-world application of the use of algebra. No wonder students struggle with math – they cannot see any relevancy to their worlds. Problem-solving that involves algebra provides that relevancy that will allow them to “cement” that learning.

Teachers of math would be far better served to focus on fewer problems of each concept and to allow students, even working in pairs or small groups, to explore how to come up with a solution to a problem that relates to the real world. There are many ways to solve math problems, and students need the freedom to come up with solution options that work for them, not just memorize the rules for only one method of solution – the standard one determined by some teachers long ago and put into textbooks.

Teaching is not a profession for the lazy. Great teachers are those who spend time going beyond the textbook and the types of questions/problems that will appear on state tests. When students are genuinely involved in their learning, when they can discuss possible solutions with their peers, and when they can actually understand why certain algorithms and rules work to solve math problems, they won’t forget how to solve them. And to prepare lessons that allow this exploration and reasoning takes a lot of time – time that teachers are not always willing to give.

The Answer

There are three factors involved in the solution.

  1. State tests need to reflect what students will need to use in the real world, not just an assessment of their ability to regurgitate rules and follow them to solve problems.
  2. Teacher education programs need to change, so that teachers are given the skills to deliver instruction that forces children to think, reason and explore.
  3. Content specific teachers need time to collaborate with one another. As long as we continue to insist upon summer vacations, then teachers should be paid to work year-round. That 2 ½ months off in the summer could be wisely spent with preparation of instructional delivery that will be valuable for their clients – the students. And teachers working together to develop these delivery systems would spread the work around.
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