What is it we are teaching?
Occasionally, in this age of increased educational accountability, we hear some people complain that we are just “teaching to the test,” obviously implying that we are not teaching the more important stuff that is not on any of the tests. This deserves consideration because there has never been a test designed that can measure all the factors that go into making students successful.
So, who decides what our schools teach?
The answer is complicated, but not difficult. Our public school system is a creation of the Kentucky General Assembly under Section 183 of the Kentucky Constitution.
The legislature created Boards of Education to locally manage and implement all the laws and regulations that dictate how we operate.
Those laws became quite a bit more directive in 1990, when KERA was approved and with it six broad learning goals. Since that time, there have been numerous regulations outlining what schools are to teach. They were called Core Content for Assessment, then revised to Core Content 4.1, and now Kentucky has adopted voluntary national standards called the Common Core State Standards (here called Kentucky Core Academic Standards). These standards, and the revisions that will follow, define what our teachers are required to teach our students.
They were not handed down from upon high; they are the product of professional teachers and content experts working through the process of what students need to know to be productive citizens.
In order to judge whether our schools are doing an adequate job utilizing taxpayer money to teach our children these things, our elected legislature determined that we would administer tests.
It is easy to see that there is no way to devise an economical, standardized test that can be quickly administered to judge whether students have learned every single thing teachers are required to teach.
The new system under which we are operating gives a series of different tests to different grades for different purposes starting in 3rd grade. They are each meant to test a sample of content and by that sample judge whether or not students are doing well and, by inference, whether teachers, schools, and districts are doing well.
These tests check on math, reading, English, writing, grammar usage, science, and social studies primarily, but there are also measures of programs in practical living, arts and humanities, early learning, and others.
The big test in my mind is the ACT. This is administered to our 11th graders and it determines whether they are college ready.
Back to the question: Do we teach to the test?
The answer is that it is impossible to simply teach to the test – so no.
Our teachers are required by law to teach to the standards. The tests are developed to measure whether or not this was done well.
Do we teach strategies on how to do well on the tests?
I certainly hope and expect so, because these assessments, especially the ACT, can have a big impact on future educational plans and scholarships.
I want our students to have every advantage possible in that arena, and I believe that most parents and even students would agree with that.
For example, the ACT science tests are heavy on interpreting data from graphs, so we must be sure we help students become good at interpreting data from graphs.
Our teachers also teach so many things that can never be tested.
They teach appropriate social skills, they teach goal setting, they teach kindness and work ethic and how to share.
They teach presentation skills and how to work together for a common goal.
These are essential pieces of our formal and informal curriculum; some people call them 21st century skills, but I believe they are timeless and essential for the success of our children and our society.
Teaching things that prepare students for life can and must exist side by side with rigorous academics that will prepare them for success. They are not mutually exclusive and never have been.