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Thoughts on ‘Test Better, Teach Better’ Chapter 2

I am struck immediately by the analogy the author uses to connect curriculum and instruction.  Identifying curriculum as the end and instruction as the means to the end is a clear mental image and gives another way to view the connection between teaching and learning.

How powerful were the three instructional payoffs described as dividends to testing?  I could not agree more with the benefit of having a 1) more accurate understanding of the final destination; 2) clearer explanations and; 3) more appropriate practice activities.

1.  More accurate understanding of final destination – self explanatory, if you know where you want students to be and you make it crystal clear for them, most likely they will meet you there

2.  Clearer explanations – I am finding the more I am clear with what I want from staff and students in my role as principal, the more clear explanation I can provide for you.  I know everyone appreciates when I am very clear in my expectations, and I see much better results from staff and students when I am clear.

3.  Appropriate practice activities – why would you spend time practicing something you have already proven to be proficient?  Certainly there is argument to be made for repetition (use it or lose it skills) that is valid, but when attempting to provide new skills, don’t muddy the water with practice that focuses on old material or distracts from the skill you are attempting to have your students gain.

I liken all three of these to being a coach and having game film on your upcoming opponent.  I know people don’t want to be ‘teaching to a test’, I get that and don’t want that either (see quote #3 below).  But how do we know how/what the test in the real world will look like for students when we don’t know what their world will entail.  Again, back to the coaching analogy – if I have film on my upcoming opponent, and I usually did, I would spend quite a bit of time analyzing the film for my opponents strengths and weaknesses, their tendencies in certain situations, and attempt to identify areas and situations where my team would be most likely to have success.  I had my athletes watch the film and analyze the same things I did – they were the ones who would face the test, why not let them see the test before taking it – it certainly increased the odds they would be successful.  So my time with my athletes focused on 1) giving them a clear understanding of what their opponent would most likely try to do based on strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and previous performance; 2) clear expectations of what they were to do in situations that would undoubtedly arise in the contest; and 3) drill, drill, drill on the specific skills they would need when the contest arrived.

I appreciated the question of “what kind of cognitive demands will be imposed on students…” and how the term cognitive demands was defined as the intellectual activities in which a student must engage.  This made me curious about the alignment of the assignments and assessments I had used in my classroom.  Did I have assessment and practice that aligned with each other?  Did I have instruction that aligned with the way my students would be assessed? What cognitive demands (think Bloom’s Taxonomy) did I put on my students?  I can tell you, probably I didn’t push much further than applying, and usually was at a base level of wrote memorization when it came to assessment.  If I did it over again, would I realign my assessment thinking with my instruction and practice?  Most definitely…

Powerful quotes:

#1  “For students to truly master this curricular aim, what must be going on inside their heads?” (p. 25)

#2  “A student who possesses generalizable skill-mastery will be able to apply that mastery in all sorts of in-school and out-of-school settings.” (p. 25)

#3  “A test is only a representation, meaning that teachers must aim their instruction not at the tests, but toward the skill, knowledge, or affect that those tests represent.” (p. 27)

My final thought here will be this – teachers must understand going in what a test (curricular end) will be asking for in order to best decide what instruction (means) to utilize to best arm students with the necessary skills they will be needing.


Keep on reading!!!

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  1. Annie

    In addition to Darrin’s well stated summary. The part that I kept coming back to is the idea that an assessment is most often a way to quantify something that is not concrete or tangible. Assessment’s goal is to make the abstract concrete; easier said that done.

  2. Thomas Jassman

    I have found the overlying statement in Chapter 2 to be that, our ultimate focus as teachers should be to evaluate our students learning of a content standard through the use of multiple assessments. Thereby, drawing inferences from those evaluations/tests to further increase student learning by means of pinpointing the student learning weakness(es) for continued growth of the content standard with new practice activities. Conclusively, through a progressive process, this shall engage a higher level of knowledge and skill towards at least general mastery of the target.

  3. Angie

    Darrin, you have given an excellent summary of this chapter and great analogy.

    Right now, I think what I like about this book so far is the emphasis on using data gleaned from the test to determine direction of student learning. We so often hear about data driven decision making and this is one of those times when direct classroom data is definitely driving the decisions and not some state or nation-wide test.
    I also enjoy the fact that Pophmam emphasizes the idea that skills need to be just as much a part of assessment as curriculum, using the curriculum for students to learn skills that can be applied to other areas. So often we can get caught up in content, content, content thinking that if they learn the content then they can master a test. So often when we completely think this way, then our tests reflect simple regurgitation of facts, low level thinking.
    Popham mentions “generalized skill-mastery” that can then be applied wherever. For me, I think we would hear a lot less of student wondering how they are going to use the content in the lives if they know that the means to learning is to gain skills that can be applied to an unknown future event. Whittle down what is really important in a subject area and then we can do more with it and get to a higher levels of thinking and learning.

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