Am I Teaching To The Test?

Ancient HistoryI'm teaching AP World History this year. It’s a first for me, and at times has proved a bit of a challenge. Do you have any idea how many cultures and nations and movements and causes and changes there are in the entire history of mankind? All interacting and comparing and evolving and being complicated?! With maps and graphs and primary sources and EVERYTHING?!?!

It’s daunting sometimes. Freakin’ Babylonians and their… cuneiform. 

Today we spent about half of a 72-minute period looking at AP-style multiple choice questions. Eight of them, in total, one at a time. Students had about a minute to read and respond to the question privately – A, B, C, or D – then another minute to discuss it with a partner to justify or change their response. Finally, I’d either reveal the correct answer and we’d discuss, or we’d discuss… leading to the correct answer.

I’m pretty sure it looked a lot like test practice, for a test that’s not even coming until May 2018.

So… have I lost my mind? Sacrificed all that is holy to me? OH MY GOD AM I RUINING THE FUTURE?! Grab your vouchers, kids – Blue is teaching to the test.

Then again… maybe we should back up a bit.

For those of you unfamiliar with Advanced Placement, the basic idea is that students experience college-level work while still in high school. In the histories, at least, that means a LOT of informational text (usually in the form of a ginormous textbook), primary sources, charts-maps-graphs, note-taking, discussions, and writing writing writing writing oh-god-the-writing.

There’s also some writing involved.

Their grades are figured like any other class – however the teacher wants, pretty much – but come spring, students are encouraged to take the big ol’ AP Exam(s) for whatever course(s) they’ve had that year. In AP World that means three hours and fifteen minutes of multiple choice, short answers (paragraphs) and two essays – one built around provided documents and one not.

It’s good times, to be sure.

Kids TestingPossible scores range from 0 – 5, with 5 being the highest and 3 generally considered “passing.” The official rhetoric, though, is that it’s beneficial for students to take the course and the exam even if they score a 1 or 2, because of the experience it provides for them prior to college. (If I were sharing this with you as a parent or a teacher at one of my workshops, I’d now bust out a graph showing how much more likely kids are to stay in college and succeed while they’re there if they’ve taken a few AP classes in high school – whatever their scores on the exams. We could then quibble over those statistics and whether that correlation actually means what it looks like it means. I think it mostly does. Other smart people don’t. The resulting kerfuffle keeps Twitter interesting and makes drinking with other AP teachers far more entertaining than it might otherwise be.)

Now, not everyone is a fan of the College Board. That’s OK – they sometimes make me a bit crazy as well. Their reasoning and decision-making often leave me wanting to drink my own spit. And some of the people up that bureaucratic chain… Seriously?

But overall I’m quite a fan of AP – even those crazy tests. In fact…

*looks around furtively*

In fact… they’re-far-from-perfect-but-overall-I’d-argue-that-AP-Exams-at-least-those-in-the-social-sciences-with-which-I’m-familiar-serve-a-defensible-purpose-and-are-pretty-decent-tests-as-big-ol’-tests-go.

(I’ll give you a moment to recover, perhaps grab some rope and Google “how to dispose of blogger’s body”…)

But these exams do a decent job measuring a practical balance of content knowledge, attentive reading and document analysis skills, and the ability to put together a reasonable historical argument and back it up with facts and reason. There are few if any “gotcha” questions relying on trivia or excessive specifics, but neither are there many to which one might successfully respond without a decent understanding of actual world history.

Sure, there are things which are helpful to know about the way the test is set up and scored before you take it, and those “test-taking strategies” might conceivably nudge your score by a fraction or two, but overall…

Calvin Testing

AP Exams are – in my opinion – a pretty good measure of what they say they measure. Those things in turn correlate strongly with the sorts of skills and knowledge most history teachers say they want their kids to have, whatever their ability level. 
Which brings me back to today and my eight multiple choice questions.

They were from someone else’s materials, so I won’t reproduce them here even by way of example, but it’s perfectly valid to ask whether or not what we were doing for 40 minutes of government-mandated class time was, in fact, learning meaningful history and associated skills, or practicing for a standardized test like any other – just dressed up a bit nicer and more likely to be picky about its weird mixed drink order.

I’m not a hundred percent certain, if I’m being entirely honest.

I think it was the right call with this class, for this course, as we march towards this exam. I feel good about how it went, actually. I’m particularly relieved about that because it took me forever to put the thing together just the way I wanted. But I did ask myself throughout the day if I might be selling my pedagogical soul for 40 pieces of College Board silver, payable in the form of student exam results and months of bragging-to-all-the-best-people for all-the-wrong-reasons.

So was it the right call? Is this a valid use of valuable class time?

The easy answer is that AP Exams are a known feature of the course going in; they are the stated “goal” and preparing for them is like coaching towards a big game or practicing the type of music you’re most likely to play in your next concert. Nothing wrong with that argument, but personally I need more.

We were revisiting content they should have mostly known, but in a different format and using someone else’s phrasing (rather than mine or theirs). That’s a good use of time… sometimes.

We were paying close attention to a map showing the spread of agriculture and pastoralism, and then to some excerpts from two Confucian writers, 500 years apart, who agreed on most things but disagreed on one rather significant issue. Neither may sound particularly exciting to you, but I assure you both are central social studies skills no matter what level of class or type of history you’re in.

Close ReadingOh! And we were “close reading.” We talked about close reading, and debated details from our close reading, and went back and reread our close reading more closely. I’m a fan of close reading, even in what is in some ways a survey course. And my district is at the moment uber-focused on improving overall close reading skills. Let me assure you, as bright as most of them are, and as much as I love their weirdness and wit, many of my students – even in AP – are not naturally strong in close reading.

I don’t mean simply the sort of “close reading” you need to beat a test; I mean the sort you need to accurately register what people are actually saying. To bring your hard-won content knowledge to bear on specific circumstances or dilemmas. To infer causes or correlations, results or reactions – to be a well-rounded, useful, informed and thinking person.

I don’t think I feel bad about any of those things – particularly not that last one. But it was while pondering the “close reading” aspect of the exercise that I realized why I think I feel pretty good about the time we spent discussing these eight questions – multiple choice though they may be.

There was thinking.

Not brilliance, always. Not deep insights or personal expression. But thinking – the sort that utilizes content knowledge, attempts to apply relatively new skills, and takes risks in constructing responses. I know, I know… it sounds like I’m squeezing a whole lotta’ cognition out of a few educated guesses about the significance of Mesoamerican llamas and whatnot. But I don’t think so.

We live in a time and culture in which facts and reality not only don’t rule the day, they’re marginalized as active evils to be avoided. We create fictional histories and twisted versions of current events to justify glorifying the worst parts of ourselves; we’ve largely sacrificed our ideals for the illusion of increased security and the shaky promise of a few more dollars in our pocket.

Mr. ThoughtfulStopping to consciously think – to apply supportable facts to complicated questions, and to look closely at related information, to be intentional in the application of proclaimed priorities and values – that seems like a very good use of time, period – whatever the time period. Kinda makes me want to do it more often.

Don’t worry, though. I haven’t gone full Legit Grit-Master or anything. Friday we colored – sort of. Tomorrow we’re paraphrasing historical documents then recapping them in short bursts out loud via some system I haven’t quite sorted out yet. We won’t even be talking about AP-style anything again until the last week of this month.

At which point we’ll probably revisit the Multiple Choice and talk about what makes a good Short Answer response on the exam. I mean, come on – I don’t want to have to explain why more of my kids didn’t get that ‘3’ next time I’m at dinner with those AP teachers, do I?

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Close reading is POUNDED into students K-12. What the students have learned to do with the close reading is to search for the answer that will give them the correct answer on the test. They have essentially re wired their brain to avoid the boredom. Close reading of informational texts is boring and if students never get to have opinions about reading, they will always find the shortcut to the "right answer". AP classes and college classes in general are all about thinking, comparing, making informed decisions and the content in an AP class allows for more of that....unfortunately, the kids have been drilled on getting the 1 correct answer from that 1 excerpt from that 1 informational text. You, now have to teach them to think and you now have have to teach them how to take the AP test... so you really are teaching to the test.

When I started teaching, I swore I wouldn't "teach to the test." Then I signed up to teach AP Language, and they taught how to teach the test. I was conflicted. But I soon overcame it because the test is another tool to teach the material, using someone else's words and definitions, as you said, Blue. Teaching the test (not "to" it) actually gives students exposure to the format and helps them see how the skills (close reading, annotating, etc) can actually be used. The students who succeed on AP exams also notice an increase on their ACT score, but I have some now who are coming back from college and telling me the format, discussions, and topics in the class are both more interesting than on-level classes AND closer to what they truly experience in college.

Pardon the oxymoronic tile. The majority of AP teachers I know refuse to stray. If its not on the test, they don't teach it. Therein lies the biggest fault of standards and standardized testing. AP tests undermine teacher curiosity and gladly trade interesting side trips in history for the boredom of the predictable and staid.


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