Monday, February 14, 2011

Testing and the "teachable moment"

As a teacher watching the events unfold in Egypt and across the middle east I cannot help but think that we are witnessing a grand historical “teachable moment”. Only a few times in a lifespan do we see hundreds of thousands of ordinary people take to the streets to become the agents of historical change.

What an incredible opportunity for teachers and schools to integrate history in the making into their lessons.

What role do individuals play in making change to society? How do basic human rights, like freedom of assembly, impact a society? In what ways do countries adopt democratic rules? Live newsfeeds from Al Jezeera and CNN provide ready access to see up close the mood of a country in transition grappling with these very questions. Twitter feeds created to the minute updates on events on the ground.

And yet it is ironic that these events took place during the same weeks that Grade 4 and 7 students in British Columbia were writing the Foundation Skills Assessment tests, and Grade 10, 11 and 12 students their first round of provincial exams. This means for many teachers, taking advantage of the teachable moment is not that easy. The time just isn't there.

And so the second “teachable moment” that Egypt offers us is to reconsider the direction we take our schools with respect to standardized testing. Do we want to narrow the curriculum and focus learning for standardized tests? Or do we want to engage students in experiential learning that is relevant and meaningful to a changing world around us?

The Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) is administered to every Grade 4 and every Grade 7 student, every year. It takes about 4 ½ hours of testing time, but coupled with booking the computer lab, teaching students to use the computer entry forms, and making sure absent children are tested, the process typically happens over a two to three week period.

The provincial exams are written by secondary school students in a variety of courses required for graduation. They contribute towards a student's final mark.

Both the FSA results and provincial exam results are used in the Fraser Institute rankings published in the media every year.

Social studies, history and geography are completely absent from the Foundation Skills Assessment. Teachers in Grades 4 and 7 may have felt compelled to focus on the areas these tests address during most of the month of January – reading, writing and mathematics.

Similarly, secondary teachers may find it a challenge to take a few weeks away from the curriculum in Social Studies class and particularly in a Social Studies 11 class because of the final provincial exam. The exam topics for this course are fixed, and preparation for the exam often involves ensuring students are familiar with vocabulary and the mandated content for the exam.

While teachers always strive to provide engaging and meaningful learning activities, it can be a challenge when students expect to be well prepared for a standardized test or provincial exam which has a fixed curriculum and a standard format for questions. Teachers do not set out to “teach to the test”, but the pressure for high test scores inevitably has an impact.

This is a real shame, as the events currently unfolding provide a far more vivid and accessible history lesson than the pages of a textbook ever will. Teachers ought to have the freedom to pursue events and ideas that have particular currency when they arise. This is a critical feature of engaging students in meaningful learning.

Supporters of the FSAs and provincial exams may respond that the tests do not really take so much time, and that teachers should simply not be prepping or focusing narrowly on the test subjects. But the logic of the testing and ranking makes that very difficult.

Once a standardized test is in place, there is a lot of pressure over the test results. Students want to do well. Parents want their children to do well. Administrators want their school to do well. And the quickest, most reliable way to see an immediate gain in test scores is to focus on the test.

This can leave precious little time to shift gears to current events.

It is not only young people who should care about whether our teenagers spent the last few weeks prepping for a multiple choice exam instead of debating global issues. We all have an interest in ensuring that our schools and teachers are able to seize the opportunities of any "teachable moment". The current testing regime is an obstacle in their way.

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