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DEPTH vs. "COVERAGE" in TEACHING and STANDARDIZED TEST PREP

Individual teachers must deal with this most central issues in teaching. Does our need to prepare students to take high stakes standardized tests mean that we need to address the standards and frameworks thoroughly? Must we sacrifice favorite units--favorites with students and with us--in order to cover topics likely to be on the test? It may take courage to do what is right; at least in dealing with this issue the evidence is surprisingly counterintuitive, and in favor of what most teachers would prefer to do.

Critical Issue: Rethinking Assessment and Its Role in Supporting Educational Reform A key site and links for understanding the assessment factors in this issue.

Fit the Frameworks to Life makes the case for meaningful content addressing multiple frameworks through project and problem-based teaching.

"COVERAGE vs. AUTHENTIC LEARNING"
An excerpt from UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (ASCD, 1998), PP. 131-133
MISCONCEPTION ALERT
  1. "I would like to go into greater depth, but I have to cover the content. This all takes so much time!" We believe this statement is plausible, but incorrect, and based on a misunderstanding about the relationship between results and teaching.

    The root of the misunderstanding is the very real problem of having to make difficult choices and priorities in instruction. All teaching involves deciding in part what not to teach or emphasize. All teaching involves the feeling that we are making great sacrifices in likely and desirable understanding. No good teacher has ever complained of having too much time.
    The "coverer” acts under an illusion, we believe: Textbook and test-driven instruction operate under an untested assumption that coverage maximizes test scores. But there is little evidence to support that view.. In fact, the recent Third International Mathematical and Science Study (TIMSS) reveals that the opposite is true. So much is simply passed over without inquiry. Weaker students get confused and lost. Memory is overtaxed in the absence of central questions and ideas upon which organized inquiries and answers can be placed. Ultimately, coverage is based on an egocentric fallacy: If I talked about it and we read about it, they got it. (Or as a high school teacher we know once termed it, "teaching by mentioning it.")
    Coverage involves a sad irony. in the absence of guiding questions, ideas, and methods that are meant to recur and inform all learning, students are left to guess about what is most important and what is going to be tested. Test results reflect this lack, even when the teaching is otherwise good.
    The time-honored justification for this type of content coverage is that the syllabus and upcoming tests somehow demand it. Yet, teachers who make this claim rarely subject it to critical scrutiny. Should we think that teaching worse causes higher test scores? That's what is implied by their rationale. But let's stop and rethink this understanding:

  2. **What methods of teaching ensure the greatest retention and recall of facts? Surely, not one that is essentially composed of unconnected lectures and reading, with no prioritized knowledge containing overarching ideas or performance goals to guide note taking and studying. Recall depends on meaningful, prioritized ideas and uses to organize what is to be remembered.

  3. **When we compare classrooms with the highest test scores and those with the lowest test scores, do we see more or less uncoverage and performance-based work in the former or the latter classrooms? In our experience, the best test scores correlate with more diverse, active, and intellectually provocative forms of instruction. The worst scores come from classrooms that rely on simplistic worksheets, homework problems having no larger purpose, and “copy down my notes from the blackboard” kinds of work. Recent research by Newmann (1997) and his colleagues supports the idea that more authentic work leads to better overall student performance.

  4. **Has the teacher who covers only content conducted action research to justify that the coverage approach yields equally optimal results--to determine what forms and diversity of teaching maximize test scores? Few teachers have ever done systematic research into their own practice. Rather, they grow comfortable with their habits, which invariably are developed with limited exposure to other ways of teaching. They fear that new approaches to instruction will jeopardize results. That is a reasonable fear, we allow, but not quite the same thing as their having evidence that their coverage approach is demonstrably the most effective.
    Coverage thus works under a false logic, one that betrays a misconception about cause and effect in test validity. We can easily confuse correlation with causality: Short-answer test results correlate with important performance; teaching to items in a coverage way doesn't cause important performance.
    For example, it would be ludicrous to practice the doctor's physical exam as a way of becoming fit and well. The reality is the opposite: If we are physically fit and do healthy things, we will pass the physical. The separate items on the physical are not meant to be taught and crammed for; rather, they serve as indirect measures of our normal healthful living. Multiple-choice answers correlate with more genuine abilities and performance; yet mastery of those test items does not cause achievement.

    Standardized tests were not invented to be directly "taught to." Indeed, we corrupt their meaning if we teach to them. Rather, they were meant to be the easiest ways possible of testing classroom-developed knowledge and skills indirectly and inexpensively. (This point is discussed at greater length in Wiggins, 1998, Chapters 10 and 11.)

  5. **The correlation of standardized test scores with socioeconomic status is FAR higher than their predictive value for academic success. "Conventional multiple choice, knowledge-centered testing does not serve the cause of education well. Such testing drives teachers toward rote styles of instruction that may help with retention of knowledge but have little hope of building understanding or the active use of knowledge." David Perkins Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child (Free Press, 1992)



    What Gets Assessed Is What Gets Taught

    Those who want assessment to drive instruction toward new learning theories often remind us that "What you test is what you get." That is, tests determine not only the content but also the format of instruction. Shepard (1989) found that in response to externally mandated tests:

    "Teachers taught the precise content of the tests rather than underlying concepts; and skills were taught in the same format as the test rather than as they would be used in the real world. For example, teachers reported giving up essay tests because they are inefficient in preparing students for multiple-choice tests."
    In schools or classrooms using multiple-choice tests, instruction tends to emphasize drill and practice on decontextualized skills, reflecting the emphasis of many multiple-choice tests. As Romberg, Zarinna, and Williams (1989) point out:
    "A study of eighth grade [mathematics] teachers from every state revealed that the majority of teachers make instructional changes as a result of mandated tests, and the nature of those changes is at odds with the recommendations of the curriculum and evaluation standards. For example, in response to the use of such tests teachers increase their emphasis on basic skills and pencil-and-paper computation and decrease their emphasis on project work, the use of technology, and cooperative effort."
    Rather than increasing test scores, however, this focus on endless skill and drill can actually have the opposite effect: "Not surprisingly, students given instruction aimed at conceptual understanding do better on skills tests than students drilled on the skills directly (Carpenter, Fennema, Peterson, Chiang, & Loef, 1988)" (in Shepard, 1989, p. 6). Indeed, it can be harmful to postpone instruction in higher-order thinking skills (such as problem solving) until low-level skills (such as computation) have been mastered. Students learn by doing. After all, how many of us learned to write by endlessly practicing on vocabulary tests, grammar worksheets, and spelling lessons? We learned by writing and by correcting our own errors. Of course, students - particularly new learners - need some direct practice in skills, but low-achieving students suffer the most from this approach, because if their initial test scores are low, they often are given dull and repetitive skills instruction that does not enable them to grasp underlying concepts (Levin, 1987).

    The stress of high-stakes testing, combined with the relatively isolated nature of teaching, has caused many teachers to "bite off way more than they or their students can chew." Without consultation with and division of labor among teachers, a single teacher often end up trying to cover virtually all the frameworks. This, research suggests, is more likely to result in lower scores and greater forgetting. Given what we know of "Jigsaw" division of labor learning collaborative/cooperative learning, it should be possible to "cover" content in a similar way to how law students prepare for their Boards through division of labor. Placing student learning in the context of Essential Questions.

    Rubrics and collaborative/cooperative learning can increase student producivity, prepare them for career work, and leave time for teachers to use many of the lessons and units that have worked now, but which have been sacrificed on the altar of high-stakes testing.

    Also, other sites on RUBRICS give examples of formats that can be used for assessing more significant performance and teaching students to do meaningful self-assessment. This would take testing quantum leaps beyond standardized tests.

    The site Raising Scores & Expectations has more tips to help students prepare for standardized tests.


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