Wednesday, February 9, 2011


5: the quality or state of being complete or thorough

Last week, A went to our local middle school to take her TCAP writing assessment.  While there, the counselor gave us a sample TCAP test to use in preparing for spring testing.  I spent that night going through the test, paying special attention to the math and science sections, which are A's weaker areas.  In math, I was looking for concepts that our textbook hadn't covered.  We've been following diligently along, making good, solid progress, but we aren't using the same textbook our school system uses, so I imagined there might be some differences.  There were a few, but nothing alarming.  Science, on the other hand, left my head spinning.

I read through the section once to see if I knew all of the answers.  I did, mostly.  But what was of great concern and no small amount of consternation was the breadth of subject matter and complete lack of depth possible when covering at least five different categories of science on a fifth grade assessment.  How could students be expected to truly understand any aspect of genetics, ecology, physics, astronomy or meteorology when all of them were covered at once?

I started by making a list of the different things A and I would need to cover between now and April. I looked up books on motion, force, gravity and more.  I spent several hours and created a general plan for the next two weeks.  But the more I worked, the more frustrated I became.  This approach to science made no sense to me.  Wouldn't A be better off truly understanding one of these subjects instead of knowing tiny bite sized portions of several of them?  Sure, I could teach her some, if not all, of this stuff over the course of the next six weeks, but was that really how I wanted to spend our time?

I should confess that science has not been our focus this year.  I signed A up for a Botany tutorial precisely so that I wouldn't have to juggle science along with our other subjects.  It's not my favorite and not a favorite of A's, so I thought it wouldn't hurt anything to pick an area that she does have interest in and just go with that.  She has learned quite a bit in her botany class, but that's one subject that does not appear in the TCAP, so that's not doing us much good right now.

Even before seeing the sample TCAP, I was planning a different approach for next year.  B loves science and has already asked for units on geology, astronomy and botany next year.  I've already purchased a few books to help us learn about these subjects and I think they can easily be done without lab access or a great deal of foreknowledge on my part.  And I suspect that having a sister classmate interested in science will help A find it more interesting.  One of A's chief complaints about science is that it is messy and a little gross.  That shouldn't be a problem when studying rocks, space or plants.  But that's all next year...

In the meantime, I find myself struggling to reconcile testing with learning.  Before I started homeschooling, I heard other parents speak with disdain about testing, making it fairly obvious that they didn't like having to assess their children in this way.  As a product of public school and a parent of public school children, I was a bit puzzled.  What was wrong with testing?  Couldn't it help you see what your child had or hadn't learned?  I get it now.  I haven't taught to this test, so it may show that A is behind her peers.  Is that true?  Yes and no.  She might not be able to tell you which planet is fourth from the sun, but she can tell you how Renaissance art heralded a change in approach to art and how Impressionism heralded a break from that approach and started a different trajectory.  She can tell you how people in the Renaissance viewed women and how that is similar to and different from today.  She can explain in writing what she's learned and can write imaginative short stories.

I think, above all, she is learning to think.  But will the tests in April measure that?  I'm not sure. My approach has definitely been one of depth over breadth.  My initial goal was to study 1400-1800 in history.  We've only just finished da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.  You do the math.  There's no way we're making it to 1800 before May.  And that's just fine with me because she is taking the time to really understand the material.  She's taking the time to create projects that help her remember what she's learned.  She is enjoying learning.

I'm still on the fence about how to approach our TCAP preparations.  I don't think it will serve me well to ignore what's on the test.  But I don't think it's best to just scrap what we've been doing and focus solely on test prep, either.  For now, we're learning about Galileo, who was born the year Michelangelo died and illustrates the Renaissance approach to science quite nicely.  He also discovered several laws of nature that will be covered on the TCAP test.  I am loathe to forgo some degree of depth in our study of Galileo.  I am a firm believer that learning a lot about one subject ends up teaching you a little about other subjects.  But learning a little about a lot of subjects?  That leaves your mind with huge gaps to fill in - and sometimes we fill those gaps incorrectly when left to our own devices.

As with everything in life, I'm sure my own experiences with and style of learning inform my opinion on this.  I loved learning best when I was able to really dig in.  In fact, one of my favorite things about my junior year of college at the University of Leeds was that I took seminars on very focused subjects instead of survey courses that covered hundreds of years in twelve weeks.  I loved learning this way.  I still do.

If you're a teacher, a parent, a lover of learning, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.  Are there times when we are better served to learn with less depth?  Are there subjects where a breadth of knowledge is more beneficial than depth?  I have no statistics - or even experience - to back up my feelings on this.  I just know how I like to learn and that it rubs me the wrong way to touch on a bunch of things, but never dig into them.  What do you think?


tdouthit said...

Your husband forwarded your blog post to me and I really enjoyed your insights.

You have discovered the great debate in our public school system. How do you measure learning and teacher effectiveness. Does your daughter's ability to do well on the TCAP really show how you've done this year as a teacher? Does it show how much she's learned? Kind of-but not really.

Now you can step back and do an assessment of what you have done and be proud of the girl she is becoming, but that doesn't mean her TCAP score will be good.

But, what if your paycheck depended on it. You better believe that you would teach to that test.

In my teaching career, I had the opposite experience. A couple of years ago, I taught Algebra 1 at my school. (Typically, I teach Calculus and Geometry.) After the typical laboring through equations, linear functions, and graphing, I was a month away from a test that would determine if these students would get the Algebra credit which they need to graduate. For the next month, I taught them how to punch all of the answers in multiple choice back into the questions. So, 90% of them passed the test, but only 60% knew what they were doing. And, I lost over a month of real instruction.

I am with you. Learn deeply. Learn how to love to learn. Don't worry too much about the test, until that test truly matters. And then, still don't worry too much. Developing a child curiosity is the best thing you can do.

WordGirl said...

TD - I really appreciate your comment, especially given your years of classroom experience. I totally agree that I would teach to the test if I were paid based on how A does on the test.

For now, I'm trying to fill some of the gaps between what we've learned and what is on the test and just relax about the rest. As a recovering perfectionist, I keep telling my children that their grades don't matter, it's what who they are and what they are learning that's important. Now it's time for me to live like I mean those words.

Anonymous said...

In lower school many times hitting the high points and/or just doing the basics is a way of exposing students to all that is possible. B would not know that she wants to learn more about rocks and plants and planets if she had not been exposed to it. I totally agree that the curriculum in public schools is too broad; but I think in the early years it helps students discover what areas they are most interested in learning more about. I think you have done the right think with A this year -- having her learn in depth. Teaching her to 'think' is what will serve her well on any test. Don't swear the TCAP. Since A can think she will probably surprise you with how she is able to understand and get the right answers on some of the science that she hasn't been exposed to. 'Loving to learn' always tops 'test scores'. :)

Kim said...

At her age, a brief touch on several different aspects of a subject will help her understand which areas she might want to delve into more deeply when she has to make choices (is in high school when you may choose between biology and chemistry). In 5th grade I do see the benefit in that aspect of your post.

As for testing. I think you know my view on it. It's not that testing is used as ONE way of assessing their learning of the whole year, it's that it is used as the ONLY assessment. Remember when we were in school. We took several tests of this sort and they were used to assess where we were and were used as a tool to help the teacher know which students still needed help with which concepts. But when one test one day is used as the only assessment in moving to the next grade, thats where I have a problem. Even the SAT's are taken more than once!
Granted, I do not know the policy here as I have not taught in TN. But in TX, if a student didnt pass their standardized test, they failed that grade level. Even in 1st grade. So you can bet that the entire 2nd semester was used as test prep - how to bubble in circles, how to test for long periods - etc. It was frustrating as a teacher to have a whole year of teaching come down to one day - and no matter how well the child had done or if you felt they were ready to move on, if they didnt pass the test, that was it.
Ok, long rambling rant over. Maybe it isnt quite so stringent here, but the system in TX of passing/failing students based on one week of testing was what made me hang up my chalk ;)