I was teaching the way I knew would get the students the highest grades on the test. Some of the most interesting and motivating parts of social studies were being ignored as I struggled to produce high-test scores…
Over the past few years I have noticed a change in the way I am teaching middle school social studies. I was not really aware of it until this evening when I was watching the History Channel and its feature on the Mountain Men. As they explained the feats of these men I remembered how much fun it was to teach about them. I remembered the excitement as my smaller male students learned that Kit Carson was also short and the looks on their faces when they learned that Jedediah Smith had his scalp and ear sewn back on without the benefit of painkillers. These men’s accomplishments in pushing into the unknown were great stepping stone lessons to instill in students the dangers and rewards of risk taking and to appreciate what they have now.
I thought about my lessons for the next week. Would I have to limit Pearl Harbor Day to a brief mention to keep up my assault on preparing for the California standardized test blitz that was just 80 days hence? Eighty days to cover the War of 1812, the Westward Movement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Industrialization and Gilded Age periods not to mention imperialism, some wars, and the literature and arts that the curriculum committee in Sacramento has inflicted on the rest of us. (Yes, I was rejected for this committee once again so this is sour grapes.)
And then I smiled to myself. My test scores are among the highest in the state for a school that has five subgroups. Subgroups are based on the number of minority students and those in special grouping such as low income/free lunch. In the last two years I have taught a total of 345 students and only three have received a low score. Meanwhile, well over 90 percent have scored in the top two categories. In other words, my students have done as well as those at schools with just two subgroups and usually the more subgroups, the lower your scores.
A quick look back at my plans revealed that I hadn’t changed my lessons since my students’ test scores increased. I was teaching the way I knew would get the students the highest grades on the test. Some of the most interesting and motivating parts of social studies were being ignored as I struggled to produce high-test scores. After all, our middle school received a 911 on our API (Academic Performance Index) which was as good, if not better, than any other middle school with so many subgroups. But the reality is who really benefited? Was it the school, the administration, the parents, the students, the teachers, or the State? Each of them stood to gain something positive from high scores.
Unfortunately, the only thing that suffered was social studies. The expansive curriculum that includes sociology, political science, anthropology, history, geography, and economics had been streamlined into a package that fit with California’s standards and the test dates. I had created a test-scoring monster and was afraid to change it. My students were on task, but my drive to maintain high-test scores was killing their interest in the subject matter.
Many of my students contact me during the year and the common remembrance wasn’t really the curriculum, but our community service projects, field trips, and their work to improve society by creating a variety of PowerPoint’s and websites to help others. Their work is on such diverse sites as the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the Oregon-California Trail Association. They even created a website that has the State standards explained with books and links for each section. Their efforts to help younger students understand government resulted in a website that tells the history of government as a play and it was heralded by Harvard University’s school of government as beneficial. They even created a Facebook page about me that featured, not what they learned about social studies, but how I helped them to learn. Sadly, in spite of their high test scores, they recalled very little about what the State said was important. Still, until seeing the History Channel program, I was reluctant to change my methods for fear students wouldn’t perform well on the tests. But once I reverted to teaching the way I believe is the right way, the change rekindled the long-forgotten fun of teaching … the way finding an old picture brings back a flood of memories. Whether I have the courage to continue to shake off my hidebound lesson plans in favor of flavor in my teaching is not a certainty. The problem is having to face up to the inevitable lower test scores and what that may bring. If only I had the courage of a Mountain Man.
This hidden downside to good test scores is yet another reason that the real curse of standardized testing is in what is being tested, and not the test. A truly great standardized test would give the teacher the flexibility to modify its content to reflect the interest of the students.
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Alan Haskvitz teaches at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, Calif., and makes staff development presentations nationwide. In addition, he serves as an audio-visual evaluator and design consultant for his county department of education; a tutor to multi-cultural students in English and art; and an Internet consultant.
Haskvitz's career spans more than 20 years. He has taught every grade level and core subject, has been recognized repeatedly for innovative teaching and has received the following honors, among many:
USA Today All Star Teacher
100 Most Influential Educators
Reader's Digest Hero in Education
Learning Magazine's Professional Best
National Middle Level Teacher of the Year
National Exemplary Teacher
Christa McAuliffe National Award
Robert Cherry International Award for Great Teachers
In addition, Haskvitz publishes articles on successful educational practices and speaks at conferences. He has served on seven national committees and boards.
Haskvitz maintains credentials and training in special and gifted education, history, administration, bilingual education, journalism, English, social studies, art, business, computers, museumology and Asian studies. He holds these credentials for Canada, New York and California. His experience also includes staff development, gifted curriculum design, administration, community relations and motivation. His background includes 10 years of university education.
As a teacher, Haskvitz's curriculum increased CAP/CLAS test scores from the 22nd percentile to the 94th percentile, the largest gain in California history. In addition, Haskvitz and his students work continuously to improve their school and community. His students' work is often selected for awards in competitions in several subject areas. For more details about Alan and his students' work, visit his page on the Educational Cyber Playground.