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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Different Perspective: Teaching to the Test

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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