March 13 — 12:00 am, 2003

Classroom conflict: teacher priorities vs. test prep

As pressure to raise test scores in Philadelphia public schools has increased, some teachers are frustrated with the loss of time to teach subjects not covered by standardized tests and the lost instructional time taken by the tests.

However, other teachers say they have found ways to work within the constraints. Although the tests are looming large, for many teachers it is business as usual.

Recent doctoral research that included 24 teachers in two West Philadelphia public elementary schools illuminated how teaching has been affected by the standardized tests used in the School District: the PSSA, the SAT-9 that was used last year, and the TerraNova, implemented for the first time this past October.

Conflicting priorities

Teachers’ perspectives on the role of standardized tests in their classrooms varied according to the grade level taught and their perception of the importance of testing to the principal. Some teachers felt pressure to spend months on test preparation activities and focus on those areas tested, while omitting subjects not covered by the tests.

When asked how she prepared for the PSSA and last year’s SAT-9, a third grade teacher said she presented students with "test-taking skills, strategies, and practice. I used loads of practice tests, at least two or three times a week."

Of the 24 teachers questioned, almost half noted that some subject area or regular activity was omitted from their schedule in order to make time for reading, writing, or math test preparation because those are subjects measured on the tests.

A second grade teacher in one elementary school in the study stated, "Unfortunately, what winds up getting left out is the social studies or the science."

In a middle school, another teacher explained, "There’s not enough time in the day to [help students prepare for the test] and then cover everything else."

The research, not yet published, did find that almost half the teachers felt the tests did not have an overwhelming effect on their teaching. When asked if subjects were being omitted in favor of test preparation, a second grade teacher exclaimed, "No! We are doing everything. We are right on time with all of it."

Focus on test starts early

As early as kindergarten, some teachers surveyed felt pressure to spend more time on reading and writing skills in preparation for the standardized tests.

One veteran kindergarten teacher, who has since left the District, expressed frustration about a classroom environment that is completely focused on preparing students to begin taking tests in the second grade. "Where we might do an art project or make a class book based on something that I read to them, that doesn’t exist anymore."

Some principals, although concerned with how the tests might affect teaching, say they are not concentrating on scores at the expense of learning.

Marjorie Neff, principal of Powel Elementary School, explained that there is "increasing pressure to perform [on standardized tests], but I do not think they are the end-all and be-all."

When the third graders began taking the PSSA in her school for the first time this year, Neff said that she was "concerned about the amount of time the actual testing takes up and the pull teachers feel between test preparation and maintaining the integrity of the content."

Lost instructional time

In classrooms where teachers focus on test-taking skills, many cited the amount of instructional time lost as an impediment to high-quality teaching.

Lost instructional time includes the actual time allotted for the administration of standardized tests, time lost in instruction due to an increased focus on testing, and the time used for preparation for the tests. Much of this is time taken away from subjects that are not measured by these assessments.

A local researcher recently found that ninth grade students at a Philadelphia high school lost 137 minutes of potential instruction time in each course in the first seven weeks of school due to standardized testing.

Classroom experiences differ

But not all teachers agree that standardized tests have negatively impacted the quality or quantity of their instructional time.

At least half of the teachers interviewed responded to the issue of lost instructional time by noting that the PSSA measures necessary skills and that whether or not a standardized test was given, they would teach the students the same information.

Ann Gardiner, assistant principal of Bodine High School for International Affairs stated, "For us, test prep is part of a larger package. We have always emphasized that the skills and concepts on the tests are what the students need in college and in life."

"We are concerned that classroom time not be devoted exclusively to test prep," Gardiner added. "The bulk of classroom time is still devoted to the curriculum found in state standards and the District’s scope and sequence."

Several elementary school teachers commented that they taught to the District’s academic standards and were not concerned with the tests overall. Like teachers at Bodine, they said they did include some basic test-taking skills in their curriculum but did not make it the focus of what they teach.

According to a second grade teacher, "We’re not here to teach our kids to be successful on a test. We’re trying to teach our kids to be successful in life. We’re hoping that we’re doing both."

A fifth grade teacher agreed, asserting, "You can incorporate [the basic test skills] into your reading and writing very easily."

In the end, few can say they are not feeling nervous about the new emphasis on tests and the high-stakes nature these assessments have taken on, but many teachers and administrators say they are sticking to their guns and preparing students for more than an exam.

As Maureen Gavin, a math teacher at Bodine, pointed out, "We teach concepts that are mandated by the state. These are concepts that every college-bound student should know. The tests are a gauge of what concepts students have mastered and they act as a standard. And we need standards!"

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