Exams Aren't the Enemy: How Tests Can Help Low-Income Students

A teacher at a Massachusetts charter school weighs in on the Atlanta cheating scandal
exams.jpgA second-grade student at the John Fenwick Elementary School in Salem, N.J., which in 2006 was reported to be making speedy progress on standardized tests despite operating in a low-income district. Officials credited an overhaul of teaching methods. (Jose F. Moreno/AP)

The recent cheating scandal in Atlanta is a reminder to teachers not to let anxiety over high-stakes testing diminish high-quality instruction. The idea that testing is incompatible with educating is nonsense. The idea that low-income students can't pass the test without their teachers cheating or "teaching the test" all year is just bad pedagogy. We must continue to be passionate and skillful teachers of critical thinking, writing and reading. And we must also continue to test our students. I am convinced that the combination of the two is what leads my students to success.

I teach 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English at the Academy of the Pacific Rim (APR), a public charter school in Boston, where more than half of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. In two of the past five years, my school has been among those that ranked first in the state on the 10th grade English MCAS, Massachusetts's end-of-year standardized test. As the sole 10th-grade English teacher, the MCAS is always on my mind. From September to March, I personally think about MCAS constantly, but from September to January, I do virtually no explicit test preparation with my students. What I do instead is teach intensive reading, writing, and critical thinking skills to prepare them for my 11th and 12th-grade college-style seminars and beyond.

In 10th grade, we read a mix of classics like The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and more modern texts like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Fast Food Nation. The focus of my 10th-grade course is on seminar discussion. Students discuss the texts in large and small groups. I ask them to deliver persuasive speeches on the topics we are discussing. Sometimes they act out scenes or role-play characters from fictional texts. We also practice grammar and vocabulary. In addition, I require them to write essays that are the length of MCAS compositions--they both learn the format that the test requires, and practice writing the kind of analytical essays they'll encounter in 11th and 12th grade and in college.

As much as I care about making sure my students pass the MCAS so that they can earn a diploma, getting students to pass the test is not the end goal. My goal is to give every student in my class the skills to succeed in the higher-level courses at my school.

In 11th and 12th grade, students choose from a variety of thematically-based college style seminars, focusing for example on magical realism, dystopian literature, or the Harlem Renaissance...In addition to the frequent seminar discussions, students read college-level literary criticism, participate in group projects and write five- to seven-page analytical essays. My goal is that after high school, no matter what college my students attend, they will experience a seamless transition from 12th grade to their freshman year. If anything, college should feel easier than they expected.

Does the MCAS affect some logistical choices I make for my 10th graders? Of course. The MCAS is a handwritten test, so I require many handwritten essays so I can make sure my students are writing clearly and formatting their paragraphs correctly without the aid of a computer or spell-check. Does this impede my ability to assign rigorous analytical essays? Absolutely not.

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Talmadge Nardi teaches English at the Academy of the Pacific Rim in Boston.

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