Teacher Maria Duarte watches as students work through fraction problems… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
Even as the annual state testing season bore down on her this spring, fourth-grade teacher Jin Yi barely bothered with test prep materials. The Hobart Boulevard Elementary School teacher used to spend weeks with practice tests but found they bored her students.
Instead, she engages them with hands-on lessons, such as measuring their arms and comparing that data to solve above-grade-level subtraction problems.
"I used to spend time on test prep because I felt pressured to do it," said Yi, who attended Hobart in Koreatown herself and returned a decade ago to teach. "But I think it's kind of a waste of time. The students get bored and don't take it seriously and it defeats the purpose."
Yi's approach seems to work: She is rated "highly effective" in a value-added analysis by The Times based on her students' standardized test scores in English and math. She also ranks among the Los Angeles Unified School District's top 100 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in English in that analysis.
Who says students need "drill and kill" exercises to raise their test scores?
The pressure to improve student test performance in California and across the country often meets with disdain from teachers who say they are compelled to throw out creativity and "teach to the test." The phrase is usually code for teachers who are forced to abandon creativity and focus exclusively on areas tested — reading, writing and math. That, critics say, shortchanges students of such other important subjects as art, history and even science in some grades.
A.J. Duffy, former president of United Teachers Los Angeles, for instance, dismisses the weeks before spring testing as "Bubbling-In 101," a reference to class time spent teaching students how to select correct answers.
Visits with Yi and other successful teachers around Los Angeles County, however, suggest that innovative teaching and rich classroom experiences need not be sacrificed in the quest for better test scores. But it's not easy to have it all. Several teachers interviewed said they spend hours of extra planning time and hundreds of dollars to create more interesting lessons. They say they must be supremely organized and strict enforcers of classroom rules. And some quietly skirt official district schedules to run with their own approaches.
Next door to Yi, Hobart fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith has cut down L.A. Unified's prescribed reading program from three hours a day to 75 minutes, saying his students can work on reading comprehension, vocabulary and other skills through other subjects. That opens up time to learn physics by building model roller coasters and rockets and to grasp history with Ken Burns documentaries. His students work on long-term art projects, perform Shakespeare and learn musical instruments.
"To teach all of the lessons they want us to teach using the official district schedule is impossible — it can't be done," said Esquith, who is rated "highly effective" by the Times and has won numerous national teaching awards. "Teachers have to finagle the schedule."
Esquith and Yi also bemoaned the increasing focus on testing and sympathized with frustrated colleagues.
At Los Angeles Elementary School in the Pico-Union neighborhood, fourth-grade teacher Maria Duarte lamented the loss of time to teach science — her favorite subject and one that she said most interests her students. Over the years, the time for that subject has dropped from 2.5 days a week to 1.5 days a week in favor of language arts and math. One casualty was a popular experiment growing radishes that Duarte said taught critical thinking and research skills.
Duarte was also rated highly effective in the Times analysis. Under value-added, a student's past test performance is compared with his or her current progress to measure whether teachers added — or subtracted — value to their students' academic growth.
"Painfully, I decided I had to let that go," Duarte said of the experiment. "There's just not enough time — or we need to think of better ways to use our time."
In Monterey Park, eighth-grade teacher Janice Pirolo said she no longer has time to delve deeply into the curriculum or stray much from it. When she does, she falls behind.
When her school, Monterey Highlands, received funding to visit the Japanese American National Museum, Pirolo prepared her students by teaching them about the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. She also spent time on Martin Luther King Jr. before the national holiday named for the civil rights leader .
But none of that is part of eighth-grade social studies standards, and Pirolo fell behind. For a month before the testing in May, she abandoned the textbook entirely to focus exclusively on test prep. As a result, she got through only the textbook's fourth chapter by year's end.
"We have stopped reading the textbook, sadly … but you live and die by the test," said Pirolo, a 34-year veteran who teaches social studies and language arts.