Years ago, at the height of the No Child Left Behind era, I visited a school that was working on mapping their curricula. Teams of teachers were huddled around chart papers in the library creating colorful timelines of units, standards, and assessments. The curious thing about the timelines was that they ended in the first week of March for several of the teams. They told me this was because that by the time the state testing window rolled around, they normally have covered all the standards. When I asked what comes after testing, they had a variety of ideas ranging from “fun” to “review” to “preparing the kids for next year when things really get hard.” A school year is more than 180 days, and your curriculum should leverage every one of them.
That same year working with a different school that was also striving to meet an AYP benchmark that had eluded them, I was shown a different version of a curriculum map from a team of eighth grade language arts teachers. This one was different in that it extended the whole school year. However, this one had a stop to the units and standards in early February with just a single box extending to March that said “test prep.” The team shared with me a comprehensive packet they had worked on for a few years to perfect. It included lessons on pre-reading questions before reading the passage, daily short answer prompts with checklists to remind students to use complete sentences and precise punctuation, and a comprehensive treatment of how to craft a superior five-paragraph essay.
The team also informed me that the units that came before the test prep window were all of those covered on the test, including specific essay types. The units that came after the testing window were standards that the team claimed were not on the test. They all said they enjoyed the last quarter of the year the most because they could “teach what they wanted” since testing was over.
Making a single test the focus of your school year ignores your real goal – to teach students to understand and enjoy learning, thinking, and expressing themselves in ever more sophisticated ways as they grow and mature.
Here's the thing. Both schools had already been hit by the NCLB accountability hammer and likely never got off that list before the waivers came along after all students weren’t proficient in 2014. Now we are beginning a new era for accountability with less emphasis on annual assessments, and we can break some bad habits. No student ever became “proficient” on your state test because of a three-week crash course in test taking skills. The best test prep is, as it always has been, a strong and coherent curriculum implemented through great teaching. You really can’t teach to a computer adaptive test. So, let’s get back to focusing on the students in front of you and the knowledge and skills they should develop after having spent a year in your care.
A little bit about me: I work with states around curriculum and instruction, school turnaround, and preparing kids for college and career. Finding ways to help teachers teach what matters has always been my focus. I’d love to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.