First Person

Teaching To The Test

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

As the 10th-grade global history teacher at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, the fact that my students would have to pass a Regents exam in my subject as a prerequisite for graduation was never far from my mind. I grew to have a love-hate relationship with this requirement. I liked using the exam to motivate my students and hold them accountable to learning. But at the same time, I found many of the facts assessed by this exam to be arbitrary or trivial.

The Regents Exam in Global History and Geography consists of 50 multiple-choice questions, 12 or so short-answer document based questions, and two essays. A student must score 65 to pass. I typically found that if my students could score 30 out of 50 on the multiple-choice section, they could pass the exam (assuming they wrote both essays). This was no easy task, considering many of my students had low levels of literacy and very little factual knowledge of history or geography to start the year.

Teaching my students the depth and breadth of knowledge necessary to pass this exam was a yearlong process. (Actually, the global history curriculum in New York state covers two years. However, since there were different ninth-grade history teachers in each of the four years I taught at this school, it felt like my responsibility to prepare students for the exam). Before my second year I decided to teach thematically instead of chronologically, anticipating that my students would learn more by studying a few key ideas in-depth than by exposure to a traditional survey approach. This meant I had to choose my themes carefully, so I could introduce many regions and eras under the umbrella of one big idea. My themes included industrialization, imperialism, and human rights, among others. A unit on human rights included content about the Holocaust, apartheid South Africa, and the Rwandan genocide, for example.

For most of the school year, I taught my thematic units using primary and secondary sources and requiring a fair amount of essay writing. I hoped this would prepare them for the essay and document-analysis portions of the Regents exam, and this also best reflected the way I think history should be taught, But for the last six weeks of the school year, I shifted into coach mode and drilled my students on all the facts they might need to know for the multiple-choice section of the test. I designed a program that involved making 15-20 flash cards each week, superficially covering all of the content I didn’t have time for during the rest of the year.

I’ve selected two sample questions to illustrate my issue with the multiple-choice section of the Regents exam. Here’s the first:

Peter the Great of Russia, Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, and Shah Pahlavi of Iran were similar in that in their nations they

  1. restored feudalism
  2. established programs of westernization
  3. instituted democratic governments
  4. allowed foreign occupation

Did you know the answer? My students did. They picked “2” because they learned that Kemal Ataturk westernized Turkey. They did not necessarily know the meaning of “westernization” or which choices to eliminate. But because the Regents exam often asks variations of this same question, I had prepared them for the possibility by teaching them the simple association of Ataturk and Westernization.

By contrast, many of my students got the following question wrong, despite actually having knowledge about Confucius:

Which belief is most closely associated with the philosophy of Confucianism?

  1. nirvana
  2. reincarnation
  3. prayer
  4. filial piety

Here, my students panicked. Most of them knew that Confucius believed children should respect their elders, but they did not know the term filial piety. Instead, many went with a word they vaguely recognized, such as nirvana, even though they may have known that word was connected to Buddhism, not Confucianism.

Despite the seeming irrelevance of many of the facts I asked them to learn, most of my students responded positively to my test-prep regimen. I think they liked the concrete nature of learning facts as well as the consistent positive reinforcement they received from weekly assessments. Once students saw that my system actually helped them improve their scores, most bought into it.

In the end, 55 percent of my students passed their exam during that second year. This was up from 33 percent the year before and was a higher pass rate than the same group of students achieved on their math and science exams. Even so, some of these students barely passed and benefited from generous scores on their essays (teachers grade their own students’ tests in New York). The students who did not pass the exam would have to take it again and again in the future until they did.

The harsh lesson for many of these students was that there is no way around this requirement. I tell my students each year that I can give them the “tricks of the trade” in terms of what to know but I cannot learn for them. Like it or not, passing the exam requires memorizing a lot of information and memorizing information takes work. It takes some students a long time to come to terms with this. A few never did.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.