Monday, April 26, 2010

Stop the Insanity

I recently attended a conference and heard Lucy Calkins speak about some research being done at Columbia University about the correlation between students’ guided reading levels and the score they get on the state test. While I don’t have the hard and fast data, she explained that they are finding that fourth graders reading at a level N at the time of the test are the ones more likely to get a 2 and the children reading at a level S at the time of the test would be the ones more likely to get a 3 and the child reading at a level V at the time of the test would be the ones more likely to get a 4. She pointed out that the larger scale implication of these findings is that we need to pay more attention to boosting children’s reading levels. Boosting reading levels requires teachers to amp up the small group and one-on-one instruction. It means monitoring students closely to ensure that they are selecting books on their level and being ritualistic and religious about giving kids independent reading time. Lucy mentioned that when teachers start prepping for the test in January and spend three months committed to practice test after practice test it might well be akin to what happens when children don’t read over the summer—they lose ground instead of gain ground.

When I heard Lucy speak these words, I felt a wave of relief. Could it be that we finally have the research we need to say to those purchasing workbooks and wasting school duplicating resources on test prep packets to STOP! We’re doing more harm than good?

In 2006, in his book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, Richard Allington wrote,

“The best guideline for test preparation would seem to be to practice a couple of days before the test to familiarize students with the test format and to introduce or review, general test-taking strategies. But daily periods of test preparation across the school year seems more likely to result in lower performances because most test preparation involves little, if any, teaching of useful reading strategies or development of word knowledge.”

Allington has obviously known for years what Lucy is trying to make mainstream, but how can we help classroom teachers buy in? I know so many who attribute their students’ successes to test prep. For whatever reason, they don’t see the value in the quality of their teaching.

I have a fantasy of being a school superintendent issuing a dictum that no school dollars would be used to purchase commercially produced test prep materials. I would forbid the practice of using packets filled with short passages and literal level comprehension questions as reading instruction and add that anybody caught disobeying these orders would be written up for insubordination.

Without the support of administrators, teachers will continue to attribute their test results to test prep. The emphasis MUST be on good teaching. Good teaching makes a difference in student achievement. Not Xerox or March to May or whatever other nonsense they publish to “prepare” students for the state exam.

The test is almost here and we are all preparing to breathe a collective sigh of relief. But before next year’s scramble begins again, perhaps we need to rethink this insanity and refocus on what’s really important: Good teachers + Good Reading Instruction = More Proficient Readers. It’s that simple.

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