This week is 7th and 8th grade. My own Emily is going to spend hours this week filling in little circles with her number two pencil. She'll also have to write a few short essays and answer some short-response word problems in math. Her high scores will prove to the state that
The tests are the focus of the entire school year. Even impressively skilled and remarkably creative teachers are locked into the drudgery of teaching test-taking skills in the weeks and months leading up to The Test.
I can speak to the ineffectiveness of the writing prompts, in particular. I spent two years teaching Basic Skills composition at two area community colleges which draw from a dozen or so school districts in two counties. I have taught the students who have been deemed incapable of success in the standard college-level courses, at least where writing and grammar are concerned. I have also received hours of professional development at the elementary school level in how to prepare students for the language arts literacy portions of The Test.
And I can tell you this .... the two are not remotely the same thing. Writing a five-paragraph essay the right way involves several steps: pre-writing, rough draft, waiting at least 24 hours, revising (for content), editing (for grammar and punctuation), before preceding to a final copy. The essay should consist of an introductory paragraph which includes both a hook and a statement of not only the main idea but also the plan for its development, three body paragraphs each of which has its own main idea supported by details and examples, and finally a concluding paragraph. This process ideally takes two or three days.
Writing for the test involves getting as much down on your paper as you can during the forty minutes allotted for writing, being sure to include as many "compositional risks" as possible, namely figurative language (metaphors, onomatopoeia, alliteration, similes, personification), questioning, dialogue, a title, shifting times and events, sentence variety and personal voice (humor, quirkiness (!!!), surprise). Points are scored for use of these risks, whether or not they actually make sense within the meaning or purpose of the writing. Certainly, points are also awarded for grammatical correctness, supported main ideas, examples -- but even without these key points of good writing a student can score surprisingly well just by integrating plenty of risks. Students are told of the importance of continuing to write until they at least reach the last blank page provided for the writing in the test booklet.
So, except for the particularly intelligent students -- who do enough reading and/or writing on their own to understand how "real" writing flows and sounds and feels -- students develop habitual writing behaviors that have little to do with how real writing (particularly for academia) should work. I received plenty of college freshman compositions* comprised of nothing but questions, with no answers. I have also received papers consisting almost entirely of metaphorical language or language describing something without actually stating what the something is. I have received paragraphs consisting entirely of unpunctuated dialogue between individuals who are never named in the writing.
I know. And at least some of it is not their fault at all. Some of these students, as soon as they're taught a better way to write, can really write quite well. They've been taught the wrong process.
But, it's not the teachers' fault, either. When tenure decisions and contract renewal decisions and (in some states, but thankfully not New Jersey ... yet) salary/bonus decisions can be made based upon the standardized test scores of one's students -- you bet your sweet bippy you're going to spend at least some part of your school day "teaching to The Test." It's simple self-preservation.
Plenty of well-meaning school districts would love to put more money into music, art, languages, technology, field trips, etc, but none of those areas are tested on the NJASK, so none of those areas will get the attention, funding, professional development and staffing with the same emphasis as language arts literacy and math (and science in the 4th and 8th grades). Again, it's self-preservation.
I could go on and on. But, we have three more days of testing this week, followed by at least three days of testing next week and the week after. So, I'll have plenty more to say.
* My "diagnostic" paragraph is assigned during the first class, with no instruction by me, asking them to name the World's Greatest Job and explain why it is the greatest.