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

Brockton HS

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I should have included this in my first post. Here is a article which summarizes the story: http://www.commonwealthmagazine.org/Voices/Conversation/2011/Winter/Grad...

Physics & Engineering Professor

The soccer metaphor & Brockton, MA

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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

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

Brockton HS

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For anyone interested in "teaching to the test", I encourage you to research Brockton HS in Massachusetts. They first tried to "teach to the test" and failed, but the succeeded only when they focused on teaching reading and writing in general.

I enjoyed reading your

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I enjoyed reading your article. At a recent PLC meeting we were looking at our data from our state standardized tests. We had many inferences as to why the tests were so low...it was hot in our school that day, we had just come back from a school vacation, it was at the end of the day....yadda, yadda, yadda. Finally, another teacher said that we are just not even teaching our students HOW to take a test. I like your point with stamina and providing purpose. I think if we did this throughout the year it would cause so much less anxiety for the teachers and most importantly for our students!

Elementary Music Teacher, Professional Clarinetist, Technology in the Class

Farewell :-)

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Quote:

@Robert Moody, it looks like what you are arguing for is local (vs. State or Federal) control and teacher autonomy. I tend to agree with you on this, and I think that would be a very interesting debate, but is a different, and much larger debate than this "teaching to the test" discussion, which is grounded in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

- James

You are correct, we should not detract from the focus of this discussion which is centered around teacher level methodology. It is just that I've been through a lot of that and it seems, at least to me, pretty straight forward with the discussion mostly centered around self-discovery and personal expression of the philosophy each has.

Not sure how one could argue the merits of anything outside of:

  • The best teachers desire to share their knowledge (professional expertise) and experience with the children they teach.
  • Good teachers utilize proven planning and teaching strategies.
  • Successful teachers understand the goals and objectives they are teaching towards and use the previously mentioned strategies to achieve them.
  • Curriculum is forced into line by federal and state mandates associated with standardized tests.
  • Since standardized test scores are directly connected to the federal and state resources available to local school districts, school personnel will follow suit to make sure "the bills are paid".
  • In order to pay the bills, teachers and administrators will use the before mentioned planning and strategies to "teach to the test" so that scores will reflect their right to federal and state monies.
  • Sincerely, I'm not sure where the room for "...this debate need not be purely political, but can have a rational and empirical basis, if we choose." is. What rational and empirical data and argument can be levied against what appears to be universally accepted truth? Even Ben has said that he agrees with the barrage of rebukes concerning "teaching to the test" and thinks the title and points were misleading from his actual view.

    Quote:

    On the other hand, I am not aware of nearly as much research that would inform either the question of the locus of political control of education (local vs. central), or of the optimum degree of teacher autonomy. The closest that comes to mind is Tucker (2011), comparing our policies in these and other areas to other nations that scored highly on PISA. These debates will therefore be driven more by personal opinion and political belief than by sound research.

    —James

    First, thank you for mentioning that document—I enjoyed perusing it and will read it with greater acuity and thoroughness later. In particular, my perusal quickly suggested that they and I DO agree and the larger approach and that the current US approach is awry.

    And as a final FYI to anyone following, I think the whole idea that we should gear public education solely to math and science is incredibly ignorant and a complete disservice to our children and our country. As such, I think the PISA test is not something we should see as the almighty measure of how we compare to the rest of the world. Are there measures in society that can help determine the success of the education we have served it? There needs to be a balancing of control between Federal/State and local input to curriculum. Certainly this is for another discussion somewhere.

    In any case, I am finished here. Not angry, but accepting. My points really are a distraction from the discussion that some need to have here. Thanks for your input and references James.

    For those who'd like a link to the document James mentioned, click Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform.

Local Control?

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@Robert Moody, it looks like what you are arguing for is local (vs. State or Federal) control and teacher autonomy. I tend to agree with you on this, and I think that would be a very interesting debate, but is a different, and much larger debate than this "teaching to the test" discussion, which is grounded in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

At least regarding teaching to the test, and large-scale high-stakes assessment, there is a significant amount of research to inform our discussion, and important new studies are being released regularly. Thus this debate need not be purely political, but can have a rational and empirical basis, if we choose.

On the other hand, I am not aware of nearly as much research that would inform either the question of the locus of political control of education (local vs. central), or of the optimum degree of teacher autonomy. The closest that comes to mind is Tucker (2011), comparing our policies in these and other areas to other nations that scored highly on PISA. These debates will therefore be driven more by personal opinion and political belief than by sound research.

—

Tucker, M. S. (2011). Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. An American Agenda of Education Reform. Washington, DC: National Center of Education and the Economy.

Elementary Music Teacher, Professional Clarinetist, Technology in the Class

This Discussion Obfuscates the Real Issue

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This point, made for the blog,...

Quote:

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?

—Ben Johnson

...has inevitably become this...

Quote:

When it comes to academics, we just need to find a better way to “win the game” than by passing a test.

—Mitch Ward

I say "inevitably" because teachers, apart from some who simply enjoy the paycheck and time off each year, sincerely want the best for their students—teachers want everyone to win. But I think we avoid the serious issue of placing the onus for "defending the faith", so-to-speak, on the correct people.

What I mean is that I think we can agree that if we have a test, one that determines our livelihood, and we want the kids to be successful on it, we will teach to it. Clearly that makes sense. But can we all agree through all this analysis that single tests in specific areas (i.e. Reading/Writing, Math, Science, Social Studies) will likely not cover or measure enough to accurately determine the holistic growth of our children? Do we not agree that we are growing the entire child, not specific skill sets?

So Ben suggests that we teach "to the test" while aiming above it, as if somehow we can reach out to other parts of the child. I think this attempt to make lemonade from lemons is laudable but really does avoid what needs to happen.

The system is broken and needs to be fixed. Legislatures, seeking to defend themselves with this "Look! We're doing a great job because we are doing everything we can to hold these TEACHERS accountable!" need to be released of this power they wield. They paint this picture we are currently dealing with to protect themselves. Through this disguise, they point the fingers at others (i.e. teachers) to allow themselves to free up money from education and say they are the heroes. They set these limiting "standards" disguises(because don't we want everyone to have equal opportunities to learn?), suggest that only a certain amount of resources are actually needed to meet these standards (which include an eventual impossible 100% pass rate), and they continue the layers to obfuscate the real problems (i.e. them) with "sincere" support for teachers and concern for providing the best for our future citizens by making them competitive with math and science scores that compare to the rest of the world.

Sure, we are given "standardized" tests from upon high and we can "teach to them". The truth is, that is not the problem and it really is a misdirection of our valuable resources (i.e. time, thinking, etc.). I am not an expert on creating movements like the one that will be needed to change this paradigm, but I do know it needs to be done and that this discussion mostly leads to maintaining it. :-)

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

Earth shattering Results

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Mitch:

We are on the same page. Thank you for clarifying. I agree with everything you wrote.

My point of writing this piece was not to focus on the test itself but the teacher. Sort of a stop-gap measure, what can we do right now with the system and the tests we have? Yes the test needs fixing and there certainly are other options, but meanwhile what do we do? We quit spending so much time worrying about minimum standards, and start shooting for students to achieve those earth shattering results- Books, works of art, published research, inventions and other creations. Your classes are the kinds of classes every student should have!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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

Tests should be an interdisciplinary

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Mitch, I agree with your recent post about getting students to write a book or letters or articles as a test; however, I would go further to say that having any "English" test is also similar to dribbling and passing practice as much as testing grammar, structure, etc. The real test should involve innovating using interdisciplinary skills. In other words, the test might be writing a research paper that leverages what they learned in English, Biology, Math, and History, combined.

Ben: Passing a test is rarely

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Ben:

Passing a test is rarely intrinsically motivating for students. Winning, as in any sport or game, is usually highly motivational. Creating in any of the fine arts is also highly motivational because the product reflects the student’s creativity. In sports, students are tested every moment they are on the field, the formative assessment. Then there is the final score, the summative assessment. This can, and should, be a great analogy for academic assessment.

Let me relate this to an English class. Teaching to the test often means heavy emphasis on grammar, structure, and analysis. All of these are useful, just as dribbling and passing practice are useful in soccer. But what is the point in the eyes of the student? What if we set a goal of writing a book, or getting published? Maybe proving a point, or writing letters or articles decrying an injustice would be a suitable goal. If the goal is making a point, or writing something beautiful or earth shattering, this becomes more like winning a soccer game.

As for the testing, the problem with standardized testing in the United States is that we are unwilling to take the time to go beyond machine testing. Machines work best for testing memorization, not creativity. Coaches watch the players and assess achievement. Teachers can, likewise, watch students and assess achievement. We did an experiment in which five English teachers corrected the same set of papers. The emphasis was not always exactly the same, but the summative assessment scores were incredibly similar. I believe all standardized tests in Finland are also scored by humans. That system has been very successful.

The soccer half of your analogy was great. It is the standardized testing “winning with a good score” part I found difficult to buy. When you spoke of teachers gathering descriptive evidence on established learning objectives, it made be believe we are pretty much on the same track. As in soccer, writing has performance standards and established learning objectives. When it comes to academics, we just need to find a better way to “win the game” than by passing a test.

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