Cutting Through the Gordian Knot of High Stakes Testing: Reflections on How to Teach as Well as Test

We need to start by acknowledging the 12,000-pound elephant in the room. The fact is that for a variety of reasons testing in some form is going to be with us for the foreseeable future.  Last fall at the NCET convention in St. Louis, I had the good fortune to be at the session where a number of top literacy experts talked about a variety of literacy issues. Lucy Calkins was among them.  I think Lucy’s comments around testing are especially useful for the current topic.  After acknowledging that testing is going to be with us for a good long while, she told how she and her colleagues in New York successfully lobbied to change the statewide testing to a form that had better face validity (my term not hers) than previous testing.

I think Lucy is on to something here.  My undergraduate degree was in political science/history.  I spent 2 years as a student body president at a university, 5 years teaching political science & history and 6 years as a small-town alderman.  Politics is often a 0-sum game. Everyone is looking for part of the scarce resources allocated by the political process.  However laudable the cause of education is; the fact is that we are competing with many equally deserving groups for a piece of the pie. We need something more than just our good word that the resources allotted for education are being put to used effectively. There are many ways to demonstrate that e.g. graduation rates, employment rates, independent reading rates, testing et al.  When testing is used, the trick is in making sure the reading test used meets face validity. In my opinion tests that measure mainly decoding skills do not. Tests that measure both meaning making and decoding skills do.  By the way, we can and should teach decoding skills in a way that leads to and enhances meaning making skills.  Here are some practical suggestions around the topic of testing and the literacy world.

You can begin by limiting the “test taking” instruction for students to the amount needed for those students to get used to the testing format employed in their state tests. I’ve seen situations where literacy instruction becomes one ongoing and eternal series of lessons in test practice instruction. Such an approach usually yields a bump in test scores as the students learn the nuances of the testing form. This is followed by an eternal plateau of test scores with little or no gains. This is because the time taken to teach test taking precludes time being taken to teach the meaning making that is the heart of the reading process.

One of my fellow bloggers, Lori Robb recently used a powerful quote from Margaret Mead. Mead said, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think”.  We are in an era of knowledge explosion.  Gains in our knowledge base that used to take centuries now happen in the course of a single generation.  In such an age, focusing our teaching on how to think, how to learn new things, makes perfect sense. That kind of learning is best taught in teaching students to problem solve on their own. That includes learning how to problem solve their own words. They should also talk about and write about their ideas and, of course, read about new ideas from others. For that to happen we must “prime the pump”.  That means providing time and opportunities for students to discuss, interact, write about, think about what they discuss and finally, teaching them to make meaning out of the text.  In a workshop setting in a Title 1 building in an urban neighborhood where I worked for 18 years, I saw students as young as 1st grade “talk big about little books”.  These are the selfsame students who helped that district gain the distinction of being a Secretary’s Initiative Award winner placing their Title One program in the top tenth of 1 percent of Title One programs in that era.  That happened twice while I was there.

I think too often in the world of literacy instruction we suffer from what I have come to call the “skip to the end” phenomena.  For instance, back in the day many educators came to the realization that 220-300 words made up a majority of all the words a child needs and that most adults know most of those words by sight. Based on this, some educators moved to an implementation of the sight-say method where those students learned those words early and quickly, usually by rote. The First-Grade studies concluded that this Sight Say method was ineffective.  Why did that happen? After all, the children knew the most important words by sight, just like the grownups.

Here is what I think happened.

What happened was that unlike the grown ups who developed their collection of sight-words through wide reading, learning words as they went along by figuring out unknown words and then remembering them, the sight-say students often learned only one strategy for figuring out words. Repeat them many times and memorize them.  The resulting level of word knowledge worked in texts with highly restricted vocabulary. However, once students moved to more complex, less controlled text, they lacked any way to figure out their own words or think about what they read. Little or no time had been spent constructing meaning around the text or learning methods of problem solving their own words.  You see by “skipping to the end” the educators had inadvertently left out the most important parts of how the fluent readers became fluent.

So back to the current topic. Teaching students how to “handle” multiple choice questions about main idea or inference will do no good if the students haven’t first gone through the rich encounters of dialogue and thinking about text that skillful readers use to unpack the meaning of text and make meaning from text.

So…, teach more, test less. Don’t overdo test practice. When you teach your students, scaffold them into deeper thinking. Teach them how to problem solve their words though a variety of methods including both synthetic and analytic phonics.  Give them text that is relevant to them. Give them at least some choice in what they read and write about. Teach them how to think and problem solve on their own. Do all this and the better test scores will come. That leap of faith might seem a little scary, so I want to leave you with a little allegory to consider. It’s based on an old folk tune from the sixty’s, Desert Pete.

Desert Pete was close to dying of thirst. Needed water. Came to a pump in the desert. A very tempting bottle of water had been left near the pump. There was a note. Use the water to prime the pump.  What to do? What if the pump didn’t work? Why not just drink that water? That would get Pete at least one more day to survive.  Or should he prime the pump and get water enough for all his needs (plus enough to fill the bottle for the next traveler!). Here is a link to a YouTube version of that song:


So, it is really your choice. I personally choose to prime the pump, to teach students how to think.  I choose to give them at least some choice of what they read and write about. I choose to teach them about decoding using whichever method best works for them.  I choose to scrutinize state tests carefully to make sure they have face validity and like Lucy and her colleagues in New York, to lobby for change if they don’t. Most importantly I choose to become more skillful at scaffolding readers into their next level of thinking.  So, readers what’s you pleasure? Drink the bottle of water or prime the pump? Something to think about in the coming weeks as we near the time for annual testing.

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito

Aka Desert Sam

Copyright 2018

Sam Bommarito


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