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Thoughts on ‘Test Better, Teach Better’ Chapter 3

Too many testing targets…that is what the author has titled this chapter.  In reality, this chapter focused on educational standards and the difficulties teaching and assessing too many of these standards.

As a classroom teacher, science as you all know, I was always one who felt quite strongly about their content.  Ask me what students must know about human anatomy and physiology and I will tell you – EVERYTHING.  Thus it was interesting to see the author discuss the challenge that is inherent in having content specialists identify the ‘must know’ essentials of a given content area.  I have watched this very thing for the past six or seven years play out during our spring curriculum mapping sessions.  I know I have asked departments to take deep looks at your content maps and identify targets that maybe could be moved out of the ‘proficiency’ target designation our district has chosen to use.  In talking with building department chairs the past few weeks, many of you told me you have agreed as a department on the specific content you must teach to mastery in specific courses.

We certainly have seen, in our own verbage, the prioritizing of standards the author described as ‘essential’, ‘highly desirable’, ‘desirable’.  We have done this work and, while some of you tell me privately you could trim/reprioritize further, we have moved this is more of a standardized direction as to what is to be taught.  But what about what is to be assessed?  Here is where the use of common assessments is essential. (be they formative or summative)

Truly the bulk of this chapter, to me, was affirmation of the work we have done with our curriculum mapping process.  But, as always, there are still a few powerful take-aways…

* “(m)ost citizens joyfully applaud the merits of any accountability strategy aimed at promoting students’ mastery of “demanding” content standards.  And yet, the two most important components of this accountability strategy typically malfunction.  The content standards are too numerous to teach, and far, far too numerous to test.” (p. 33)

*”Shallow coverage, almost by definition, will rarely lead to deep understanding.” (p. 33)

*”(i)f you use pre-assessments to determine what your students already know and can do, you’ll be better able to choose suitable instructional activities for those students.” (p. 35)

*”a whopping big difference between content standards that are simply sought and content standards that are truly taught.”

*”A content standard without an accompanying performance standard is like a play without a final act.  You can’t tell what the content standard really signifies until you know how students’ mastery of it will be assessed and, thereafter, until you know what sort of performance standard has been set on that assessment.” (p. 38)

Again, a chapter that reinforced a lot of the work we do-and shined some light on some things where we can keep getting better.

Keep on reading,




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  1. Annie

    I agree that we have a list way to long of what we are to teach and no way to assess all of them. I thought Popham stated it well when he said it is good for teachers to teach everything, we as educators need to prioritize and teach a few things well.

  2. Thomas Jassman

    This is definitely quite a reaffirming chapter for me and in knowing what our department has being doing, we are on the right track. I have always felt and firmly believe in the old saying as educators that we can’t be “a jack of all trades and a master of none.” Breaking down our content standards into categories of essential, highly desirable, and desirable is paramount for our student’s success!
    Holistically, I see Popham thinking that we as educators need to work from the top down towards developing content standards as well as performance standards specific to the essential requirements of our course. More importantly, a progressive scale of content standards and performance standards from elementary to secondary is of utmost importance. Perhaps, this is something that we need to revisit again as a district.
    My final thought and perhaps thinking ahead without further reading, I realize that a large part of our student learning is now tailored around the ACT. In addition, our assessments should be tailored around those ACT essential requirements, but how when as educators we really don’t know what the test entirely focuses on? I realize that we have some guidelines for which to follow, but still there seems to be a lot of gray area towards student success with regard to taking the ACT. I feel like we will go into this ACT assessment with the analogy of the “blind leading the blind” so to speak. In trying to bring about dialogue, I then ask, are we destined to fail? I really look forward to hearing some feedback regarding my questions.

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