'They're teaching to the test! All they're doing is test prep. They're teaching to the test!"
Hang around any grammar school this time of year - fourth-grade English test time - and you will hear parents wailing about test prep as if it were something invented at Abu Ghraib. You could be forgiven for assuming that their children were being strapped to their chairs and forced to parrot meaningless facts all day, every drop of joy and learning sucked from their young lives. Test prep equals brainwashing to these angry parents.
But when it comes to the facts, they get an F.
The statewide, three-day test that fourth-graders are in the middle of today - the English Language Assessment - is not a test that kids can ace by cramming. It's not an SAT-type test. It's not about facts. It is, for two out of the three days, a writing test. (Eighth-graders are taking a similar statewide assessment. Kids in the third, fifth, sixth and seventh grades are taking a citywide test.)
While the fourth-grade test does not determine which kids get held back, it does to some extent determine which middle schools they get into. That's why many of the kids are feeling stressed. Don't blame the test for that pressure - blame a dearth of excellent middle schools, making the competition to get in so fierce. The test itself is making the kids better writers.
Today - day two - the fourth-graders will be asked to think about a story read out loud to them. Why, for instance, did the fox decide the grapes were sour? They'll have to write out their reasoning. Tomorrow the kids will read two articles and be asked to weave information from both of them into an essay. One article could be about baseball player Sammy Sosa's impoverished childhood, for instance, and another about how he sent his earnings home to the hurricane-ravaged Dominican Republic. (I'm basing this on the practice test my son brought home. Bat-corking went unmentioned.) Then the kids might be asked to write about what makes Sosa a hero.
You can't cram for a test like this any more than you can cram for a piano recital or driver's test. Sure you can practice over and over, but that just hones your skills. How terrible is that?
"If ever there was a worthwhile test, it's the ELA," says Anna Marie Carrillo, superintendent of the high-performing District 2, but also a local instructional supervisor at a handful of struggling schools in the Bronx. At some of the worst-performing schools, says Carrillo, principals are still not convinced of the importance of writing. "We know a lot of the teachers [there] just do round-robin reading: You read, then I read, then another child reads," she says.
That's it for literacy. No discussion of what the author was trying to say. No writing about it, either.
But with the English Language Assessment looming and principals keenly aware that their schools' test scores will reflect on them, "They have to focus on writing," says Carrillo.
Test prep at these schools means making the kids practice listening and writing. Cramming at the best-performing schools? Same thing. Hallelujah.
But try telling that to the parents.
"I am furious!" seethed an acquaintance of mine the other day as we were dropping off our kids. "They're spending all the time on test prep when they should be teaching our kids to write!"
Chill, my friend. These things are one and the same.