Teaching for the test – based on a true story

There is a school in Brasília that seems to be interested in approaching learning from a more ‘humanistic’ and ‘holistic’ perspective than what the current Brazilian educational system forces other schools to do so. They are concerned about arts, sports, music and creative thinking (as far as I’m concerned) than the other 99% of schools are. It’s almost as if Sir Ken Robinson’s idea of how schools should be like had come to life.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all schools could actually teach for life instead of teach for the test? I mean, it seems to me that it’s common knowledge among most educators that standardized tests don’t deliver what they claim to deliver – if you do well on the test, it means you have learned the subject. (You can read a lot of great posts on that here and here, to cite just a few people who will lead you to many others)

And my answer to that question is, yes, it would be wonderful. But I recently heard a story from a student from the school I mentioned in the first paragraph above. She had been studying in that school for quite a while and was really happy with her routine. It all changed on her second to last year of high school. As kids grow older, so do their social circles (hopefully), and no longer did this particular student live with people from her school circle. To make matters worse, she had already learned of the standardised test all Brazilian learners are submitted to and which defines whether you’re going to college or not.

Source: http://www.phdcomics.com
Read the whole comic - it's much better explained there

Reality hit hard on this student when she had a chance to compare her “knowledge” on physics, for instance, against her friends’ who were also going to compete against her for a place at university. It suddenly hit her that, if she was to succeed, she’d have to change schools and go where they actually abide by the system – they teach for the test. And so she did. Needless to say, she’s feeling miserable, but one’s got to do what one’s got to do, right?

The aim of this story is to pose a question: how can teachers be responsible for changing the system when there are no teachers in charge of thinking education? I mean, even though we may want to change the way our students learn and value their personal characteristics, we seem to be in a catch-22 situation. What I mean is, education is, ultimately, between the teacher and the learner. However, these two elements are under pressure from many different angles: schools policies, state regulations, ministry of education, and society as a whole. If teachers start this change, students will fail the big test they are forced to take in order to have better chances in life. If teachers choose not to do anything to change this situation, they’ll end up frustrated as they know what they’re doing doesn’t really help much in real life.

I’m of the opinion that we should re-think schools, and education in general. But when we’re in such a sad situation as this, I think the easy way out is a top-down change. If the ministry of education don’t change the rules for university entrance, parents will insist on enrolling their kids on schools which are well-known for their high “pass” percentages. If schools and their teachers fight the system, no matters what parents say, they’ll end up with no students – all parents want to give their kids a good chance to succeed, and if by that they need to go to a good university, they’ll take their kids to the schools that’ll better prepare their kids to get to such universities.

The situation is even worse when you learn that state schools are left to their own devices by the government and no matter how hard principals and teachers try, they can only do as much. Besides, if the salary is significantly less than what private schools pay, there isn’t much to keep good teachers in state schools.

To sum it up, it seems that our little friend will have to put up with the fact that, in order to go to university, she’ll have to be taught for the test – reality check. It doesn’t seem to matter that the kind of education she was getting before was preparing her better for life. In order to be able to “get a life”, she needs to pass the test.

How would we solve this if change doesn’t come from the top? I mean, teachers can and should do their share – pressure the government for change. But if things remain the same, the good teachers, the ones who care about teaching for life, will actually be putting their kids at a disadvantageous position. And this will be true as long as the yardstick we measure our kids against is a test.

* I first learned about Sir Ken Robinson’s video here – another nice blog!
* Read the complete comic strip here. A lot of fun stuff for those who like reading about grad school.

12 thoughts on “Teaching for the test – based on a true story

  1. Teaching to the test is something I’ve faced a lot here in Korea where the emphasis is on tests like TOEFL and TOEIC. I’ve tried as much as possible to have students work towards achieving fluency and accuracy. Unfortunately though, the reality is that most companies here use TOEIC Speaking test scores as a benchmark of speaking ability.

    1. Hi Neil,
      This seems to be true worldwide. I believe that, when it comes to ELT, companies unfortunately have to rely on test scores due to the huge number of language institutes out there. In Brazil, these language institutes are not regulated by the ministry of education, which means any businessman can set up a language institute regardless of their lack of knowledge in and concern with learning.
      Good teachers will always try to find a way to avoid this trap, but, ultimately, we have to bear in mind our learners objectives. If they’re trying to get a promotion and for such they need a certain score on a test, we’ll end up being forced to teach for the test.

    1. Hi David,
      Thanks for those links! I didn’t know parents could actually choose to withdraw their children from tests. Perhaps we’re about to see some changes, huh?!

  2. Thought provoking post. It seems that the drive for change in education has started from schools, more so primary schools, gradually reaching high schools too. But then comes crunch time in most countries, when you need those test scores to enter university/college. It can only be when the approach to higher education alters that real change can be achieved. Blogged about it briefly here http://bit.ly/cNAv38

    1. This seems to be the big problem we’re facing. As we reach high school, kids are put under a lot of pressure to pass on a standardised test. I’ve had the chance to discuss this with a couple of students of mine, and some of them said they actually asked their parents to change schools in order to be better prepared for such tests. Most of these tend to regret this choice once they start university, but they all agree it’s necessary if they want to get a head start in life.
      I agree with you, it’s only when the approach to higher education changes that we’ll see true change.
      Thanks fo sharing your blog post as well. Really nice post!

  3. Teaching to the test is a huge problem here in the United States. The school that I am currently at even has a teacher advancement program where teachers get money added to their base salary based on how students do on standardized tests and other assessment measures.

    The problem is, at my school 89% or more of the students qualify as English language learners. The sheer difficulty and complicated nature of English used on standardized tests makes them nearly impossible to pass let alone complete. But the school continues to push the students to “pass” these tests. If a school fails to make progress on the state standardized tests 3 years in a row, they are punished. Funds are cut, and sometimes government based agencies come in and “take over” the school because obviously they are not educating the students well enough to “pass” the tests.

    Therefore, teachers are scared to teach anything that might not be on “the” test. What is best for the child is not necessarily taken into account because we have to push the child to pass “the” test. It seems the same everywhere. Until government puts less emphasis on standards based tests as the only form of assessment, it will continue. We need to pressure the government! Down with “the man”!

    1. Down with the mEn, I guess! 🙂

      That’s exactly the problem we face these days. The people who are sitting there in the congress still believe (or find it easier) to insist on a model of education that had been created for the industrial age. Hopefully, there are lots of educators who are committed to change things. I guess we might get there… eventually.

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