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A Different Perspective: Teaching to the Test

| Ben Johnson

What does "teaching to the test" mean? I haven't actually ever seen this literally happen in a classroom: "Class, remember the answer to question 12 is A, 13 is B, and 14 is D." But, as much as it is maligned, isn't a form of teaching to the test the point of why we teach in the first place? I'm wondering how students can be successful on the state standardized test if we don't teach to it?

An Analogy

Gideon, my son, plays on his high school soccer team. He plays one of the two fullback positions. Because of his large size and speed, he is able to defend the goal from the other team successfully, primarily because he knows where the goal is and he knows the purpose of the ball. The test for him is to keep the ball out of his own goal and get it into the goal of the other team. He has to know the rules about not going further than the last defender of the other team or he will be off sides. He has to know that he cannot touch the ball with his hands, or kick it dangerously. All of this would be useless for Gideon if he did not have the stamina to run, or the skills to control and kick the ball.

Not teaching to the test is similar to the coaches constantly drilling the players on dribbling the ball, kicking the ball, and being able to run fast, but none of the players ever being told the purpose of the goal or why it would be important to defend it. Can you imagine the total hilarity of such a game?

Imagine twenty-two players frantically kicking a ball, running, and then kicking some more, not concerned about what direction the ball is kicked. Some players will enthusiastically run and follow the ball, while others will stand idly by and wait for the ball to come to them. Some players might even just give up in frustration and lie down on the field. If the ball accidentally makes it into the goal, the crowd cheers, but the players don't have a clue as to why.

Building Stamina and Providing Purpose

Does this sound like any classrooms we know about? Are we guilty of being so concerned about not teaching to the state standardized test that we make the students spend most of their time answering multiple-choice questions just to get them ready? What about the hours and hours we spend on showing the students how to eliminate wrong answers in order to increase their chances of getting the right ones?

Does it bother us that many students lie down on the field in frustration because the test doesn't mean anything to them? How long will students enthusiastically run after a bubble sheet if they do not know what to do with it and if they don't know why they are taking it? My point is, students should know exactly what is on the test and exactly why they need to know those things, otherwise, how in the world do we expect them to be successful on a test?

Why would we teach to something other than the test? If we are not teaching to the test, to what are we teaching? Education leader and researcher Fenwick English emphatically states that there is no shame in teaching to the test as long as the test is rigorous and representative of what needs to be learned. Such a curriculum-based test is prepared in advance as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe suggest in their backwards-planning guide, Understanding by Design: The teacher and the students both know exactly what the test is and they work together to meet the standards of the test.

Tests are facts of life, we deal with them because we know that somewhere, someone has to draw the line and set a standard. What are your thoughts about teaching to the test?

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I agree that we have to

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I agree that we have to "teach to the test." I also agree that if we teach to the standards then the students will be prepared for what is expected of them on the test. However, one big test at the end of the year isn't a good way to test the students to see if they know the material. A lot of little tests throughout the year is a lot better. Anyway, my question is this.. I teach math and a lot of the chapters in my curriculum have material that doesn't fit with the standards but goes with the rest of the material in the chapter. Do I skip it because it won't help with "the test" or do I teach it because I know it will help them in 7th grade? Or do I wait and teach it when the test is over with?

Administrator, author and educator

Rose Colored Glasses

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Citizen:

There are ideal tests out there. The ideal test is the one that the teachers make. They are called curriculum based tests and those are the tests that the teachers should be teaching to. Are the CBA's perfect? Not hardly. So that is where all of the teacher effort, principal effort and district curriculum effort should go.

The ideal teacher test is designed before instruction begins. Each question is based on priority student learning objectives, and is graduated to either be easy, medium or difficult to differentiate the test for all students. The ideal test is created by a team of teachers, holding each other accountable for good instruction. The ideal test is a

Quote:

Those in favor of teaching to the test assume the tests are ideal measurements. I reiterate my earlier comment that the tests are far from ideal. As such, teaching to the test is missing the point (in more ways than one).

Webshooter2020, is it possible you are the one wearing rose colored glasses by assuming the tests are ideal measurements?

School Administrator, Georgia

Ben - Have you read the

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Ben -

Have you read the details of the Atlanta debacle? The outline of the report says some things that I believe are critical to this conversation:

"Cheating was caused by a number of factors but primarily by the pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment."

"There was a major failure of leadership throughout APS with regard to the ethical administration of the 2009 CRCT."

"A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in APS, which created a conspiracy of silence and deniability with respect to standardized test misconduct"

Further, out of the 44 schools where cheating was uncovered, 38 of those principals were found to be directly involved in cheating!

I find it galling that you even imply the teachers are at the root of the problem - particularly in Atlanta. Did teachers cheat? Of course they did, and they should be punished; were they the cause, due to your suggested problem of "overreacting to the test"? No! They weren't responding to the test, they caved to their administrators because they feared for their jobs! I do not now nor will I ever defend this cheating, but you must put the blame where it belongs. The report outline barely mentions the teachers yet strongly indicts the administrators. You have done the opposite.

Now, Ben...why do you think Atlanta had this problem and not one of the wealthier suburbs? Because it is an inner city school system, and poverty is what keeps kids from learning, not "teachers [who] abort higher order thinking discovery learning activities". The standards that will help kids reach any meaningful learning levels are living standards, not curricular standards.

Overall, the problem IS the test. It is destroying public education, driving good teachers out of the field and marginalizing poor people. Diane Ravitch has illustrated the last point quite clearly (http://jaxkidsmatter.blogspot.com/2011/04/standardized-testing-as-crippl...); Gerald Bracey shredded the present rationale for standardized testing in just about everything he wrote. As I have said before, testing should be used to diagnose the educational needs of the children, not to attempt to establish the performance of the teachers.

Now that I'm done ranting, I compliment you on choosing a topic that has generated so much heat.

Ammanda:

You are correct, standardized tests are flawed and the importance placed on them is too great. I don't believe that the tests are biased, but I do believe that minimum standards tests do not progress education. Maximum standards do. Of course, if we have a maximum standard tests, people will cry foul stating that it is unreasonable for all students to be held to such a high standard. There you have the problem. Standards. Too high, too low, not enough, too rigid, too broad, too specific, too, too, too much. Someone decided minimum is what we got, so half the people are ok with it, the other half are not.

My take is that it is not the test that is the problem (yes it could be better), but it is the people who overreact to the test that are causing all of the problems: Well meaning teachers abort higher order thinking discovery learning activities and replace them with test prep workbooks, lectures and drills. Teachers afraid to relinquish their protected status of anonymity vigorously oppose standardized tests and value-added measurement connecting student improvement scores to their teachers. Principals and curriculum directors choose to "play the game" and find ways to focus on just the items covered in the tests, rather than provide a well rounded curriculum that also goes above and beyond the tested (sampled) curriculum.

Who gets shafted by these people (not the test)? The students. Some might say,"But if you did not have the test, then these people would not do this!" Do you think that problem in Atlanta was cause by the test? It was the people. The test is what uncovered their lack of moral character. The test data is what led them to the people who should never be allowed to teach or be with students.

Like you, I don't like how schools have made the "test" a huge deal. The huge deal should be the curriculum based tests that the teachers make--but there is a lot of room for improvement there too.

Thanks for the post.

Ben Johnson

San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

Standardized tests are flawed measurements of student learning. Many tests are biased. What I mean by that is that standardized tests assume a common background of students, when really students have varying backgrounds and background knowledge. The students with the greatest disadvantage are English Language Learners (ELLs) who often have a different schema, or knowledge of the world, than white middle class students. Economically disadvantaged and racially diverse students also often lack the background knowledge necessary to consistently score well on standardized tests. If the instrument with which we are measuring student learning is flawed, then the results are not valid.

Another problem that arises when teachers teach to the test is that curriculum narrows and important subjects, such as Social Studies, Science, and the Arts, suffer the consequences. Students receive a much more narrow education as the focus shifts solely to Mathematics and Reading. Students begin to dismiss any information that will not appear on the test because that information “does not count.” Teachers become guilty of the same thing as they fear punitive measures if their students’ scores are not high enough. Students with such a narrow curriculum will not exit our system ready for higher education.

Teachers should be held accountable for student achievement. However, high stakes standardized testing is not an effective measurement of student growth. Teacher effectiveness would be better measured through student portfolios and more authentic assessments of student knowledge. Teachers realize that differentiated instruction is best practice. It only makes sense that assessment should be differentiated too. Students are not one size fits all and so assessments cannot be either. Assessments should be a valid reflection of acquired knowledge and student growth for all students, ELLs, racially diverse, and economically disadvantaged students included.

[/quote]

Administrator, author and educator

Standardized test Flawed

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Ammanda:

You are correct, standardized tests are flawed and the importance placed on them is too great. I don't believe that the tests are biased, but I do believe that minimum standards tests do not progress education. Maximum standards do. Of course, if we have a maximum standard tests, people will cry foul stating that it is unreasonable for all students to be held to such a high standard. There you have the problem. Standards. Too high, too low, not enough, too rigid, too broad, too specific, too, too, too much. Someone decided minimum is what we got, so half the people are ok with it, the other half are not.

My take is that it is not the test that is the problem (yes it could be better), but it is the people who overreact to the test that are causing all of the problems: Well meaning teachers abort higher order thinking discovery learning activities and replace them with test prep workbooks, lectures and drills. Teachers afraid to relinquish their protected status of anonymity vigorously oppose standardized tests and value-added measurement connecting student improvement scores to their teachers. Principals and curriculum directors choose to "play the game" and find ways to focus on just the items covered in the tests, rather than provide a well rounded curriculum that also goes above and beyond the tested (sampled) curriculum.

Who gets shafted by these people (not the test)? The students. Some might say,"But if you did not have the test, then these people would not do this!" Do you think that problem in Atlanta was cause by the test? It was the people. The test is what uncovered their lack of moral character. The test data is what led them to the people who should never be allowed to teach or be with students.

Like you, I don't like how schools have made the "test" a huge deal. The huge deal should be the curriculum based tests that the teachers make--but there is a lot of room for improvement there too.

Thanks for the post.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

Standardized tests are flawed measurements of student learning. Many tests are biased. What I mean by that is that standardized tests assume a common background of students, when really students have varying backgrounds and background knowledge. The students with the greatest disadvantage are English Language Learners (ELLs) who often have a different schema, or knowledge of the world, than white middle class students. Economically disadvantaged and racially diverse students also often lack the background knowledge necessary to consistently score well on standardized tests. If the instrument with which we are measuring student learning is flawed, then the results are not valid.

Another problem that arises when teachers teach to the test is that curriculum narrows and important subjects, such as Social Studies, Science, and the Arts, suffer the consequences. Students receive a much more narrow education as the focus shifts solely to Mathematics and Reading. Students begin to dismiss any information that will not appear on the test because that information “does not count.” Teachers become guilty of the same thing as they fear punitive measures if their students’ scores are not high enough. Students with such a narrow curriculum will not exit our system ready for higher education.

Teachers should be held accountable for student achievement. However, high stakes standardized testing is not an effective measurement of student growth. Teacher effectiveness would be better measured through student portfolios and more authentic assessments of student knowledge. Teachers realize that differentiated instruction is best practice. It only makes sense that assessment should be differentiated too. Students are not one size fits all and so assessments cannot be either. Assessments should be a valid reflection of acquired knowledge and student growth for all students, ELLs, racially diverse, and economically disadvantaged students included.

Backward Design is great, Standardized testing is not

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Standardized tests are flawed measurements of student learning. Many tests are biased. What I mean by that is that standardized tests assume a common background of students, when really students have varying backgrounds and background knowledge. The students with the greatest disadvantage are English Language Learners (ELLs) who often have a different schema, or knowledge of the world, than white middle class students. Economically disadvantaged and racially diverse students also often lack the background knowledge necessary to consistently score well on standardized tests. If the instrument with which we are measuring student learning is flawed, then the results are not valid.
Another problem that arises when teachers teach to the test is that curriculum narrows and important subjects, such as Social Studies, Science, and the Arts, suffer the consequences. Students receive a much more narrow education as the focus shifts solely to Mathematics and Reading. Students begin to dismiss any information that will not appear on the test because that information “does not count.” Teachers become guilty of the same thing as they fear punitive measures if their students’ scores are not high enough. Students with such a narrow curriculum will not exit our system ready for higher education.
Teachers should be held accountable for student achievement. However, high stakes standardized testing is not an effective measurement of student growth. Teacher effectiveness would be better measured through student portfolios and more authentic assessments of student knowledge. Teachers realize that differentiated instruction is best practice. It only makes sense that assessment should be differentiated too. Students are not one size fits all and so assessments cannot be either. Assessments should be a valid reflection of acquired knowledge and student growth for all students, ELLs, racially diverse, and economically disadvantaged students included.

Citizen who understands Education is the most important piece in society.

Teach to tests? Maybe, if the tests were ideal

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Those in favor of teaching to the test assume the tests are ideal measurements. I reiterate my earlier comment that the tests are far from ideal. As such, teaching to the test is missing the point (in more ways than one).

Webshooter2020, is it possible you are the one wearing rose colored glasses by assuming the tests are ideal measurements?

School Administrator, Georgia

I'm keeping my rose colored glasses on

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Webshooter2020 made some very practical comments - as one would expect someone in industry to do. I've taught in different parts of the country as well as in different socioeconomic settings. There will never be a standard of education until there is a true standard of living. Until then, the deck will always be stacked against the poor. There is no way we can raise our collective intellect based on what we want; it has to be based on what the kids need - and their needs are rarely as simple as "an efficient delivery of the content". Subjective? sure, but I don't think there is anyone more qualified to asses these children's intellectual and developmental needs than their teachers (who are infinitely more qualified than politicians). The only way I can see national standardized testing helping the kids (as opposed to helping the politicians) is by administering them occasionally to determine our curricular plans for the children going forward. I think there are some important principles we must hold on to and never let go: tests measure children, not teachers, and teaching to the test (as opposed to teaching to the children's needs) only demonstrates the teacher's ability to predict what will be tested. I do not know of any data that clearly shows that teaching to the test improves teaching, improves learning, or raises - or even establishes - the educational standards of our country. For that matter, I do not know of any data that shows that standardized testing does any of those things either. Why are we doing it then?

Technical training supervisor for a semiconductor company in USA

Good ideas, but our society is not ready.

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Mike Ryan made some very interesting statements regarding education that are indicative of the problems faced by public education; namely that there are many, many variables in our schools. Socioeconomic conditions, needs of the community, and social justice are all great considerations, but they are all extremely subjective. There would be absolutely no standard of knowledge in our country if every teacher in the land was struggling to teach to the level of every single student, especially to the levels suggested by Ryan.

Sometimes we have to take off the idealistic rose colored glasses and look at life realistically. The USA is not going to spend the money it would take to hire enough teachers to support what Ryan suggested in his posting. We have other issues which are also important and we do not have the resources for that type of ideaological framework in our schools.

I certainly do not think that a little teaching to the test is as bad as Ryan claims.

Technical training supervisor for a semiconductor company in USA

Teach to the test... I agree... almost!

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I say you are almost absolutely correct. I am a technical trainer and I have done it for nine years. Our curriculum does not change much unless our company develops a new piece of equipment for us to add to our curriculum. One thing I have learned in that time is that some jobs require a theortical discussion and some do not. Some jobs simply require a hands-on approach that allows the student to learn by performance of the task. The student keeps on working until they complete the task successfully. We know the desired final result and we train to that result.

There are times when we train for unknown results; specifically when we are training students to troubleshoot equipment failures when there is no known final result. The students know they have to repair the machine, but they do not know the cause of the failure so they do not know what has to be fixed. They have to analyze the situation using a different set of cognitive skills to troubleshoot the failure and envision corrective actions.

It is this need to envision abstract repair actions that argues against teaching for the test. If the students always know the answers before they learn the questions then they may not have the confidence to face new questions when the answers are unknown or even unattainable.

Life is about tests, but we rarely know the answers to those test before we begin them. The really important tests can also be the most convoluted so people need to be able to think about solutions without knowing the answer up front.

Education Consultant dedicated to improving schools, one teacher at a time

Order of Creation

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Robert Moody:

You are correct. We cannot go around saying "Ready, Fire, Aim!" But what I am proposing and also Wiggins and McTighe, is that we say "Aim, Ready, Fire!"

The needs of the students, school and community are considered first then priorities are established (AIM).

Then learning goals are created from those priorities--what do we want and need students to know and be able to do. Most of the time these come from the state requirements, but the state may have minimum standards which are not robust enough for the individual school or community. A natural question to ask is, if we have a set of learning goals for students, how will we know if the students have acquired the knowledge and skills. That is when the test is created-- as evidence of completion of the goals (Ready).

Then we instruct the students in engaging and participatory learning activities (Fire).

Thanks for all the clarifications you are doing on this post. You seem to understand and did not let the semantics and emotional baggage of "Teach to the Test" get in the way. Of course, the state "test" is not the main thing, the classroom teacher "tests" is. It should be far better and more rigorously aligned to the curriculum, and student needs. But making sure the minimum of the state "test" is there also, is what a wise teacher would do.

Again--Thanks.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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