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

Common Assessements, Common Teaching

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Ryan:

The power behind common assessments and common lesson plans is that a group of intelligent, dedicated educators can produce a much higher quality of product than a single, time depleted educator. Sharing the load diminishes the individual demands on time and energy, but most importantly, the critical review of intelligent peers on a document will eliminate errors and demand high quality from all participants.

If your district needs help with this, I would be glad to help them.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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Really liked this Blog! Our district is in the process of creating common assessments for all subjects and I constantly find myself thinking how great of a tool they will be for new teachers. Using these tests to figure out what exactly it is we (the district) want our kids to know when they are done would take all the guess work out of planning. I don't find that it constricts my teaching, but allows me to better understand what direction I should go!

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

Review Days

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Ryan:

In my opinion, a review day is not necessary if, as a professional educator, you have been doing your job all along. You are right, "review" on the lesson plan for most teachers means- no lesson- easy day.

When new concepts are introduced, the professional educator automatically brings up the previous concepts and helps the students make the connections. Every day, review happens.

Traditionally "review days" have been used to fill in the gaps in student knowledge, recall only. If you want to review, since the students should already know everything, make the review activities on the application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation levels, or according to Erickson, make the review on the conceptual level rather than the factual level.

Constant reviewing as part of teaching is better than saving a day or two for review.

Good luck with this.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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Some questions I have in regards to this topic are about reviewing. Do you support the use of review days? How in depth should a review be? Should it be basically the test or do you think it should just be similar items? Do you feel some teachers use reviews as a way to skip instruction? Thanks!

8th Grade US History

Some questions I have in

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Some questions I have in regards to this topic are about reviewing. Do you support the use of review days? How in depth should a review be? Should it be basically the test or do you think it should just be similar items? Do you feel some teachers use reviews as a way to skip instruction? Thanks!

8th Grade US History

Really liked this Blog! Our

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Really liked this Blog! Our district is in the process of creating common assessments for all subjects and I constantly find myself thinking how great of a tool they will be for new teachers. Using these tests to figure out what exactly it is we (the district) want our kids to know when they are done would take all the guess work out of planning. I don't find that it constricts my teaching, but allows me to better understand what direction I should go!

School Administrator, Georgia

If you defend "teaching to

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If you defend "teaching to the test", I do not want you teaching my children. Please wear a red carnation or something to identify yourselves so I may make the appropriate decisions when I bring my son to school in the fall.

I went back and read Johnson's original blog, and I'd like to add something: McTighe and Wiggins have, in my opinion, devised a way of planning to teach to the test; nothing more, nothing less. I do not consider that helpful to children in any way. All it does is help the people who wish to measure teachers without learning anything about the children those teachers teach.

I'd like to see more "Teaching to the child"; "Teaching to the socioeconomic level"; "Teaching to the needs of the community"; "Teaching to the need for social justice"; and the like.

Elementary Music Teacher, Professional Clarinetist, Technology in the Class

I'm keen to disagree.

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I enjoyed reading your article. I completely agree that is we are not teaching to the test, to what are we teaching... I believe it would make sense for districts to allign their curriculum to tests. For example standardized tests.

I absolutely disagree. Curriculum should be aligned to the needs of those whom we relinquish our students to. Eventually that line ends with the people hiring them and putting them to work. Other, very successful, systems have accomplished this and currently outpace us.

It is backwards to create a test and then develop a curriculum around it. We need to decide a curriculum that prepares students for successful careers and lives and then design tests to make sure we are successfully leading the students towards those goal.

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Teachers should be preparing students for the skills (content standards) that are on these tests. That doesn't seem like such a bad thing to me.

The problem is when all time and resources are balanced toward test taking techniques and content that does not address the knowledge and skills needs for a successful life. We sit in our little room with our charge and decide that the only things we can bestow upon them is what is on the test...we don't have enough time to do anything else. The closer we get to the end of the year and the almighty test, the rest of the world seems to literally stop. The top half of Bloom's seems to be non-existent as students drill test taking strategies and regurgitation of information.

Elementary Music Teacher, Professional Clarinetist, Technology in the Class

Grrr. Just annoys me.

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I really wish, and this is really just a personal thing, that people would point out that they acknowledge the "other side" of that phrase, "teach to the test".

It feels like some evil conspiracy to get people chanting the thing you want them to accept so they begin to believe it is okay.

If you are a teacher and forced to prepare children for an almighty Standardized Test, then yes, you need to teach to that test. The problem is when teachers, particularly elementary teachers, feel compelled that the only important thing this child needs to learn in school is what is on that standardized test. This is a terrible by-product of this mantra "teach to the test". And please do not deny that this happens as it is a major part of my experience as a music teacher. Elementary academic teachers are notorious among Art, Music and P.E. teachers for believing that they somehow birthed these children or own them within the school. Somehow, they know everything this child needs to know and everything else is "if we have time" or "if you completed my stuff first".

The standardized tests, and the weight/importance placed on them by the people providing funds for schools, have caused school systems to forgo spending time and funds on other areas of intelligence and learning that is arguably just as valuable as math and science and social studies. This is a shame.

Again, this is semantics. "Teach to the test" to prepare them for what is on that test? Absolutely! You'd be foolish not to. "Teach to the test" at the expense of everything else? Shameful and a sign of an awry public education system.

And I said I was leaving.... *dang*

3rd grade teacher, Indiana

I agree we have to teach the

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I agree we have to teach the test. Students need to understand that test taking in itself is another "genre". There are rules, formats, and language that have to be taught in order for the test to make sense to the student.

I enjoyed reading your

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I enjoyed reading your article. I completely agree that is we are not teaching to the test, to what are we teaching... I believe it would make sense for districts to allign their curriculum to tests. For example standardized tests. Teachers should be preparing students for the skills (content standards) that are on these tests. That doesn't seem like such a bad thing to me.

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

Swimming

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Jim:

I am an old swimmer too and I understand your story perfectly. I got my own kids into swimming and I noticed that at first, they were just going through the motions. There was no real effort or investment of determination for the first few years. It was awesome however, when finally, they got the "moxie" and really started to strive. That is when they took off in swimming. As an educator, it is hard to motivate students if all you have to offer them is going through the motions, and worse, if the students realize they are only going through the motions.

Well stated post. Thanks.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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I recall some stories about Brockton, MA trying an innovative system and succeeding. I tried some superficial research without much luck. Does anybody have a specific reference or will I have to dig deeper?

Next - regarding teaching to the test.

I swam in High School and really worked on my form, doing the strokes correctly, etc. But one day my coach said something to me that stuck with me for 50+ years. He said, "Jim, you're just going through the motions." What he meant was my strokes were wonderful, but that I wasn't really trying, I wasn't attempting to go fast, I wasn't working at really moving through the water, and all I had was good form but not speed.

This can happen anywhere at any time - swimming, soccer, or education.

I'm a professor of physics and engineering and a very good one. My students learn or else. I don't like handing out F grades, but am willing to do so.

I know colleagues who I feel just show up to class, present the material well, but really don't push the students. They're only going through the motions. And if they're going through the motions, what do you think the students are doing? You guessed it - just going through the motions.

I push my students and try to be sensitive to the often invisible dividing line between positive coaching and tyranny. While they often resent it, most students also understand that they become better students and more able for future challenges after taking my class.

In my opinion less "going through the motions" and more "ole college tries" needs to happen up and down the educational ladder. In my opinion our focus on testing diverts our attention from "trying harder."

It's possible for testing to measure our progress, but testing alone cannot change the culture.

Jim

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