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An Interview with Alan J. Singer—Helping Cheaters? Or Using Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development?

Apr 28, 2013 by

Alan J. Singer

Alan J. Singer

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Alan, first of all, they have all these test corporations running around- Kaplan, etc etc and these companies take money to improve test scores on the ACT and SAT…..are these organizations a big bunch of manipulators, or cheaters or what would be the correct term?

I think they are a big bunch of cheaters, but in a different sense than people normally mean by cheating. They are “social class” cheaters rather than classroom cheaters that enhance the uneven playing field in American society. In a Huffington Post blog, “Clueless NYC Mayor Defends “Biased” High School Admissions Process and Test Developed by Pearson Sub-Division”

(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/clueless-nyc-mayor-defend_b_1930940.html), I discussed how New York City’s specialized high school admission process favors students from more affluent families who can pay for expensive test prep classes.

Based on online advertising, New York Academics offers one-on-one instruction at fees ranging from $100 to $120 per hour (http://www.tutornewyorkcity.com/fees.htm). The Kaplan company offers individual SHSAT Premier Tutoring starting at $2,599 and class at $849 (http://www.kaptest.com/K8/SHSAT/index.html).

The Princeton Review (http://www.princetonreview.com/shsat-test.aspx) also has multiple levels of preparation. Its Premier Level cost $6,300, its Master Level cost $3,879, and its low-cost online offering is a bargain at only $1,500.

The Kuei Luck Enrichment Center (http://www.kueiluck.com/shsat) in Fresh Meadows, Queens targets Chinese-American students and offers tutoring for only $2,200. The problem would be eliminated if there actually was a passing score and every qualified student was assigned to a specialized high school.

2) Now, you and I know about (gasp!) the process of elimination on test taking. By teaching this, are we making smarter test takers, better thinkers, or cheaters?

I wrote a piece “Were the Mystery Men Gifted?” for my book Teaching to Learn, Learning to Teach (http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Learn-Learning-Teach-Secondary/dp/0805842152) which opened with a discussion of the 1999 movie Mystery Men.

In the essay I discussed what we mean by gifted. I like to joke that all people are gifted in some way and my particular talent is test taking. I can pass any test on any subject without knowing anything about the topic as long as it is written in English. But that super-hero talent was not very useful to me in school.

Instead of stimulating learning, it gave me an excuse not to pay attention, which I did not do until probably my junior year in college. Recently, New York City discovered that although girls tend to be better students, boys do much better on its test for select schools (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/nyregion/girls-outnumbered-in-new-yorks-elite-public-schools.html?hpw).

In other words, there is no established correlation between high scores on these tests and school performance.

3) I have even taught some students to use an index card to keep themselves organized. Am I teaching cognitive strategies, or giving them an unfair advantage (gee, did I just UNLEVEL the playing field?)

I have no problem with helping students improve test-taking skills. I recommend that students use a blank index card to cover multiple-choice answers while they read the question. This helps them focus on the question and think about potential answers before they review the choices. This approach promotes thinking, something that is missing in most cram schools.

By the way, I am sure you know that Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development refers to real life skills, not test prep.

4) Whenever they change some test, some individuals warn of a pending drop in test scores. Is this due to:

a) making the test harder

b) changing the material

c) changing the font

d) the added stress or

e) all of the above ?

Test prep overwhelmingly focuses on the format of a test, question design, and reviewing old exams because questions are often repeated. Students are learning to master the test rather than the material. You change the format and teachers and students panic and scores inevitably decline. This happens pretty consistently. When New York State last changed the tests in 2010, more than half of public school students in New York City failed their English exams and only 54 percent passed math (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/29/education/29scores.html?pagewanted=all).

5) Now, I know a little about test protocol. Certain tests are timed. If a teacher knows that only 50 minutes is allowed, and “forgets” to monitor their watch and the children get 55 minutes—is the teacher guilty of cheating? (all these people running around screaming about erasures—there are other ways to help kids on tests for goodness sake).

All you are saying is that teachers care about their students and do not want them to do poorly because of their errors. This may really happen, but is it actually such a big deal? The cheating scandal in Atlanta (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/pearson-and-the-atlanta-s_b_3005867.html

) came about because financial rewards based on student test scores perverted the process. The problem was not the teachers, but paying bonuses based on student test scores.

6) Reading directions to the test too rapidly or too slowly—uh……could this ….uh…..perhaps cause students to …uh……do better or worse?

I think my French teacher did this during the dictation portion of the New York State Regents exam I took in 1966, but I was so inept it did not help. Remember, my super-powers are limited to English.

7) Alan, I have seen some schools do these ludicrous pep rallies to prepare students to DO THEIR BEST…..(these things are even posted on You Tube). Is a school system guilty of cheating by whipping these kinds into some kind of frenzy before the test- to encourage them to do well?

Probably these schools are just guilty of stupidity. With my eight-year old grandchildren, their parents and teachers concentrated on keeping them calm during the recent two weeks of testing. Generally, I think that is the best policy. I always recommend against cramming the night before a test. It just makes you more anxious and for students with test anxiety, I think it actually hurts their performance.

8) Alan, 30 years from now, you and I will be pushing up daisies or maybe resting in some retirement ranch, but these kids will be going about their business- raising families and running businesses- or maybe even schools themselves—much ado about nothing? Or making a mountain out of a molehill? Or a molehill out of a mountain?

My concern is not so much the tests but the dismantling of education in the United States and turning curriculum and instruction in our schools over to for-profit testing companies like Pearson ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/enough-is-enough-pearson-_b_3146434.html). That will have a long term impact. I think school systems, parents, and teachers have to say no to the testing companies and force governing bodies to suspend their contracts.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Good questions. I recommend interested readers look at my Huffington Post essay, Cheating on the Test — I May Be Guilty Also!, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/new-york-standardized-tests_b_3080548.html).

Alan Singer is Director, Secondary Education Social Studies Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership at 128 Hagedorn Hall, 119 Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY 11549

 

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