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

A 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.

There are also some discrete areas where my students do need explicit test preparation. After my first year teaching at the school, I realized that in addition to regular high-quality instruction, I also needed to help my students understand what the test was asking them to do. From January to March, I include in my lessons a number of explicit instructions about how to approach multiple-choice questions and how many words and paragraphs are expected for the composition portions of the test. We also review the plotline and characters of books we have read in class because the long composition always requires them to know at least one book very well. But this work is ultimately a very small portion of our classroom time, and even this sort of learning can be put to use long after this particular test has finished.

So to answer the common question: Is taking a high-stakes standardized test useful for most students? Yes. Part of college and career readiness is getting ready for exams. The MCAS, for example, is both a skill and an endurance test, and it prepares students to take tests of basic content knowledge--the kind of tests most professionals have to slog through to get to where they are. My students will have to take many such tests to gain access to professional fields like medicine, law, teaching and accounting.

Of course, all students deserve to go to schools where their daily work is much more than just test preparation. But the mere presence of tests in our schools isn't the problem. Yes, class can be a factor: I used to teach at a suburban charter school with mostly white, upper-middle class students who could all consistently pass the MCAS even if they had never heard of it until the day before because they were strong readers, writers and thinkers. But to suggest that in order to get low-income students to pass the test too, we need to either abandon rigorous learning opportunities or cheat is simply wrong. Instead, I try to model my class on the idea that if you can use your brain well, you will do well on any test. And my students do.

An in-depth, intensive curriculum is ultimately what allows students to succeed in life beyond high school. I am extremely proud that my urban public school students can score as well as my former suburban public school students on state tests. But I'm even more proud when I hear positive feedback from former students who are now thriving at schools like Boston College, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Syracuse University. When I ask them how their college English classes are going, I hear things like: "English? No problem," "I got an A on my freshman reading," or "Some kids from other schools are struggling with the writing, so they come to me for tutoring." These results are the results of an accessible, well-executed college preparatory curriculum. Passing their state test is just the beginning--but it's an important first step.