Is Test Prep the Mint of Education?

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via Wikimedia Commons

This morning as I was weeding my garden, it occurred to me that the mint that had overrun my herb garden was like standardized test prep. As schools across the country do their best to prepare students for the new CCSS-aligned assessments, test prep is running rampant. Just as the mint in my garden has choked out the basil and parsley, test prep, and the tests themselves, threaten to take over the school day, leaving no time to savor novels, delve into a character’s motivation, or write a deeply personal narrative.

I grow a variety of herbs in my garden because each herb has its own distinct flavor and use. The amount of the herb I use depends on what I’m cooking. The same is true for teaching. We have a wide variety of instructional resources and strategies available. As professionals, we take great care to make thoughtful decisions about which resource or strategy will best meet the needs of our students.

We have to nurture our students so they’ll become independent thinkers and problem solvers. If they are going “build strong content knowledge,” “comprehend as well as critique,” and “value evidence,” all specific goals named in the Common Core State Standards, they have to read and write all kinds of literature and informational texts. As Grant Wiggins wisely points out, “the test is not what you should be practicing; meeting the standards is what you should be practicing.” Providing students with a steady diet of random passages and multiple-choice questions, like those shared by Vicki Vinton on her blog, To Make a Prairie, will do nothing to encourage a student’s curiosity or creativity. We can only do that by providing our students with the rich, robust learning opportunities they deserve.

The mint from my garden adds wonderful notes of flavor to many dishes when I use it appropriately and judiciously. But a steady diet of mint where it doesn’t belong will turn anyone off to its delights. Let’s not turn our students off to the joys of a literate life by overwhelming them with test prep.

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7 thoughts on “Is Test Prep the Mint of Education?

  1. OMG! Yes, we use metaphors to make a point…but this one is brilliant! No matter how hard I try to block mint from spreading (burying it in plastic pots), the mint spreads. Insidious plant=insidious test prep!!

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  2. Mint definitely belongs in pots, as it chokes out everything around it, even when the plants are a lot bigger! What a great metaphor! Mint is delicious in teas and I love those mint juleps, but tomato sauce tastes better with basil. Students and gardens need variety and balance.

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  3. Reblogged this on Reading to the Core and commented:

    Close reading has been my mind a lot lately. I read What Readers Really Do, by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton. I revisited Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst as well as Falling in Love With Close Reading, by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts. Yesterday, Tara Smith’s excellent post on reading journals gave me more to think about. This is important work. Work that will help our students “grow and develop new ideas and insights.” (Barnhouse & Vinton, pg. 152) I need time to process all this wisdom and work with my colleagues to determine how we’ll integrate these ideas into our teaching. I’ll be sharing more about this in the weeks to come. In the meantime, I want to share a post from 2013 that still holds true today.

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  4. State testing and the connection of it to one’s value as a teacher can kill even the most passionate of teacher hearts. At the onset of the first “stakes” year of the CCSS, your post is a timely reminder – a little bit is fine, even good, when used “appropriately and judiciously”. Don’t think peppermint tea will ever taste quite the same!

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  5. As someone who spent upwards of an hour pruning my mint BUSH (Let’s be honest… it looks like the plant from the Little Shop of Horrors), I totally understand your analogy with mint and test prep. What a wise comparison. You’re so right about this: “Let’s not turn our students off to the joys of a literate life by overwhelming them with test prep” It’s like I want to shout, “Please, please, please don’t extinguish kids’ fires and passion for learning with test prep!”

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  6. I love this analogy Catherine. Perfect! Somehow, working together, perhaps our collective common sense and passion to keep the joy in reading will keep the monsters at bay (hopefully out grazing in the mint field).

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