Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

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
Related Tags:

Comments (69)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Tony Martin's picture
Tony Martin
Gifted Resource Teacher from Bedford, VA

I think the analogy has it exactly backwards. Teaching to the test is like doing nothing but studying the rules of the game or doing drills on specific soccer skills without ever playing the actual game of soccer. It would make sense for a coach to do this if the all important test were not a soccer match, but rather a multiple choice test on the rules or a series of discreet exercises each designed to test a particular skill.

But of course, aquiring a particular set of skills does not necessarily make one a good soccer player. And knowing the rules of the game is not at all like knowing how to play. Worst of all, to teach a kid soccer this way is to make it boring and all but ensure that the kid will have no interest whatever in the sport when the season is (mercifully) over.

Here's what this analogy looks like in the classroom. In history, it means during a unit about Immigration, a sixth grade teacher skips the project her students used to do where they interviewed relatives about their ancestor's roots and made presentations to their classmates because she needed more time to cover the material that was likely to be on the test. In a math unit on measurement, it means that kids will do more drills and simulated test questions instead of the project where they research how much of what kinds of materials it would take to remodel their rooms. In science, third graders studying decomposers wlll spend more time sorting labels and and pictures on a computer screen and not take the time to go outside and observe fungi, or design an investigation into the behavior of actual worms.

Choices like these are being made - reluctantly- by teachers in classrooms everywhere everyday. They feel they have no choice. As a result, our students are learning to do better on the tests, but they are not learning to love history, or math or science. The more time we spend "teaching to the test", the less time we have for the kinds of activities that might actually instill such a love.

Becky's picture
Becky
Gifted Education Specialist

Tests really have a difficulty in assessing complexity and depth. Tests can assess basic knowledge and discrete skills. Anything that requires bubble sheets and their concomitant short answers is not an assessment of great value. I can tell you more about a student's understanding of a topic by talking with the kid for 10 minutes than I can in an hour-long bubble sheet test.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Tony:

You have it exactly right. Teachers allow themselves to succumb to the pressure of focussing on the minimum, and blithely eliminate what they consider fluff- but in fact they eliminate all of the learning activities which we already know align with how the brain works best. We also know that standardized tests are minimum skills tests, and yet again, teachers allow themselves to descend to the lowest common denominator-- minimum standards and just teach those. They never get to the maximum standards which the vast majority of students are capable of achieving. That is the travesty. If a teacher can teach to the maximum standards, the minimum standards take care of themselves.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I think the analogy has it exactly backwards. Teaching to the test is like doing nothing but studying the rules of the game or doing drills on specific soccer skills without ever playing the actual game of soccer. It would make sense for a coach to do this if the all important test were not a soccer match, but rather a multiple choice test on the rules or a series of discreet exercises each designed to test a particular skill.

But of course, aquiring a particular set of skills does not necessarily make one a good soccer player. And knowing the rules of the game is not at all like knowing how to play. Worst of all, to teach a kid soccer this way is to make it boring and all but ensure that the kid will have no interest whatever in the sport when the season is (mercifully) over.

Here's what this analogy looks like in the classroom. In history, it means during a unit about Immigration, a sixth grade teacher skips the project her students used to do where they interviewed relatives about their ancestor's roots and made presentations to their classmates because she needed more time to cover the material that was likely to be on the test. In a math unit on measurement, it means that kids will do more drills and simulated test questions instead of the project where they research how much of what kinds of materials it would take to remodel their rooms. In science, third graders studying decomposers wlll spend more time sorting labels and and pictures on a computer screen and not take the time to go outside and observe fungi, or design an investigation into the behavior of actual worms.

Choices like these are being made - reluctantly- by teachers in classrooms everywhere everyday. They feel they have no choice. As a result, our students are learning to do better on the tests, but they are not learning to love history, or math or science. The more time we spend "teaching to the test", the less time we have for the kinds of activities that might actually instill such a love.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Becky:

Well stated. Tests are a limited way to measure student knowledge and skills. The most they can hope to do is sample how much the students know. Albeit, they are better than not testing at all, but the true measure of a student's knowledge and skills can only be seen in what the student does with the knowledge and skills.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]Tests really have a difficulty in assessing complexity and depth. Tests can assess basic knowledge and discrete skills. Anything that requires bubble sheets and their concomitant short answers is not an assessment of great value. I can tell you more about a student's understanding of a topic by talking with the kid for 10 minutes than I can in an hour-long bubble sheet test.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Robert

You hit the nail on the head. The emphasis is absolutely out of kilter. The state standardized test is completely secondary to the well designed, thoughtfully differentiated, and purposeful tests that teachers should give their students. These curriculum based tests, aligned to the state or national standards (not the state test which is a sample of the standards) will provide a hundred percent more data about the knowledge level of the students, provide quick turn around for intervention, and provide useful-timely feedback to teachers in order for them to adjust their instruction. CBAs are the tests we should teach to, as long as they are more rigorous and challenging than the state tests.

Here is the kicker. Not enough teachers care about their students' learning enough to create powerful, aligned curriculum based tests. The typical test is only created after instruction is done. Wiggins had it right by stating that the performance measures (exam) should be made before teaching starts. This is more than the text book tests, though a savvy teacher can use those for reference and ideas. True curriculum based tests will take into account the students' and the teacher's situation, and the school's goals. Done right, through pretesting and posttesting, a teacher can provide with confidence, what 'value' he or she has added to any particular student. That is more power than any standardized test.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. You obviously "get it".

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I realize that the point of this is about the idea of focusing your teaching to content to be tested. 'We know there will be a test on this, so let's study that!' But the experience I have with the bigger picture continues to distract me and moves me to comment.

As an "Arts" teacher, you know, one of the "extras" somehow, I see the result of this awry method of accountability. The NCLB Act states the Arts (for my point I use the Arts, but it refers to other areas as well) as "core" to the education of all children. Yet, the Arts have no mandated standardized testing to hold schools accountable. So we can all guess...no need to guess, seewhat happens: subjects that are tested are given complete priority (time, resources) over everything not tested.

So yes, when I am teaching summer school (3rd grade math), I teach to the goals we set. Translation to the backwards way academic teachers are forced to teach: I teach to the "test" (objectives?). But that is not equating to the conversation and emotions people have concerning "teaching to the test". I argue that the debate and emotion is derived from the perception that "teaching to the test" means notteaching other "core" things.

The fact is, the test scores pay the bills. When the hatchet comes down, no-one is going to put their head out...they'll offer their toes and fingers and then arms and legs first. Administrators and academic teachers alike feel compelled to "teach to the test" in this manner. It is their livelihood on the line.

The roots of this problem, the ones that distort the argument of "teaching to the test", are found in the backwards way our educational system seeks accountability. As a teacher, I know that I should pre-assess, analyze the data to see where my students are, plan and differentiate instruction based on that data in alignment with our curriculum and goals. I should reassess continually and adjust my planning and instruction as suggested by the data. The problem then becomes, why should every human at this precise age range know this exact information? The system promotes the level of this debate.

Should we "teach to the test"? We shouldteach to the goals set for the developmental/cognitive stage of the students as outlined in a responsible and comprehensive curriculum. "Mustwe teach to the test"--the tests mandated by people sitting behind desks in offices far away from the classrooms? Unfortunately, it seems so.[/quote]

Mike Ryan's picture
Mike Ryan
School Administrator, Georgia

The problem is the focus; we don't teach content, we teach kids! THAT is the problem with teaching to the test - it focuses on the needs of political forces instead of what the kids need - to develop as human beings and to learn how to live in a democracy. Testing does not benefit children in any way; teaching does. If allowed, a good teacher would develop and evolve a curriculum for her students that would constantly shift and change as the kids developed and as their environment - personal, political, regional, atmospheric, artistic, and on and on- swirled around them. Think of a teacher that was pivotal in your life...is it because she helped you pass some test? Of course not. It's because she helped you understand the world or yourself in some way. Finally, I want my son's coach to help my son become a healthy, socially comfortable young man who is considerate of his peers and can think on his feet. I couldn't care less if he ever played a game. It's not about the content. It's about the kid.

Jim's picture
Jim
Physics & Engineering Professor

What an awful and inaccurate analogy comparing apples to oranges. Soccer players don't take multiple choice tests to succeed in soccer. Real like, real jobs, and real careers don't give us multiple choice tests either.

I try to bring my students up the ladders of Bloom's taxonomy of analysis, application, innovation, critique, and evaluation. I avoid multiple choice tests because it does not inform me how well the student is critically thinking.

I don't disagree with Mr. Johnson as much as I disagree with multiple choice and ONLY multiple choice testing. I think it's fair to say that if the test is representative of the skills we desire students to learn that, indeed, teaching to the test is a valid strategy.

However, IMHO, our current test methodology is invalid - reliance on multiple choice being the most glaring error.

Linda's picture

I am often asked, "Do you teach to the test"? My response is "Well, yes." I think teaching to the test has a negative aspect to it that all teachers do is go over multiple choice questions day in and day out. I like to explain to people who ask me this question that I am supposed to "teach to the test." The state has set standards for me to teach students. These standards help students across the state come out of school having the same set of base skills. If there were no standards we could teach what we wanted and some students would leave school well prepared while others leave knowing very little. Standard help keep the teachers in check and hold them accountable. The test is based on the standards so if I teach the standards I am preparing my students for the test. But do I teach in multiple choice questions? Of course not, I teach using interaction and problem solving.

Donna James-Przeluski's picture
Donna James-Przeluski
11th grade English teacher, Atlanta, Georgia

Absolutely not! Teachers should not teach to the test; it is preposterous. However, educators are now faced with fancy buzz phrases aimed at raising the standard of education in the United States. The passage of No Child Left Behind, initiatives such Race to the Top, pay incentives for teachers who test well on standardized tests all come in the guise of improving education in the United States. Students testing well--this is what it really boils down to--some students test well, and let's face it, some do not. I recently read a piece by Patricia Hinchey who discussed her passing of a language test for her doctorate based in part to her knowledge of testing from tutoring her own students. In other words, she analyzed the test statisticallly to pass, demonstrating thus that there are flaws in standardized tests that some can overcome and some cannot. The odds are very much against not only teachers but also students who are bombarded with tests after test, information and more information.

The fact that students and teachers are up against such odds is unfortunate; teachers resort to teaching to the test fearing they will be labeled weak or ineffective. Teaching to the test does much in limiting the creativity that can often be brought into the classroom by teachers and students alike; it takes the joy out of teaching and the joy out of learning. The absence of joy in learning leads to a host of problems: student truancy, classroom disruption, and an increase in the drop-out rate.

We can definitely teach content that students will encounter on the test, but it absolutely must be taught in context, and as educators we must be careful not to label it "teaching to the test."

Ben Johnson questions, "Why would we teach to something other than the test? If we are not teaching to the test, to what are we teaching?" I say that education and learning encompass more than what students will encounter on a standardized test. While we should teach components and content students will see on the test, we must be sure to teach within the context and balance with critical pedagogy where students are involved in what Freire calls "authentic thinking" removing the rote of teaching to the test, and in its stead inquiry based learning where our students are involved in learning and talking about the reality they encounter in their school, community, and world.

David Ginsburg's picture
David Ginsburg
Instructional Coach, Leadership Coach, Math Specialist

There's a difference between teaching TO the test and teaching the test. Read Teaching TO the Test vs. Teaching the Test for more on this.

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.