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A Different Perspective: Teaching to the Test

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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?

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

Dean Dyer's picture

I think there are two versions of "teaching to the test" being discussed.

In the first, students are being taught test taking strategies and given some practice with the way standardized tests are set up. I don't think there's a lot of outcry against this (though maybe in the amount of this that has become necessary).

In the other version, teachers are ONLY teaching students to take the test. While this is a good survival strategy for teachers, when jobs and pay are on the line, it doesn't necessarily mean the students are learning more. And to focus all your efforts on one test seems to leave a poor taste in a lot of educators mouths.

Jules Mermelstein's picture
Jules Mermelstein
High School teacher in Montgomery County, PA

I have no problem teaching to the test if I designed the test. I have a big problem with some state or national organization deciding what my students should learn about history or government and then evaluating my school or me on whether my students learned what they (the organization) thinks is important. I also have a problem in that some students learn material and are horrible at taking projects. I let my students have a choice of either a test or a project, either of which can demonstrate to me they learned the skills or information I was teaching. I am not an expert in other areas, so I will stick to the social studies. There are so many different areas one can concentrate in regarding history or government and with the limited time we see students, we cannot possibly teach everything. So each of our history or government teachers concentrates on various aspects of our subject. I would imagine that my students might have trouble on another teacher's test (even in my department) and their students may have trouble on my tests. How can we hope that a standardized test could be developed without affecting the enriching information that various teachers bring to various aspects of what they teach?

Robert Moody's picture
Robert Moody
Elementary Music Teacher, Professional Clarinetist, Technology in the Class

I believe this opinion plays with semantics a little too closely. Yes, I believe you (Ben) understand the semantics being used by the differing opinions, but I think you may be rubbing the deep felt emotions connected with those different understandings. (Intentionally?)

The cliche "teaching to the test" strikes peoples' emotions when referring to "the exclusion of all else". When my school system knows that Reading/Writing, Math and Science or a specific subset of Social Studies is being tested in certain grades, will they expend all time and resources towards achieving satisfactory scores on those tests? Will they neglect other areas the children can be learning in, other "intelligences", to assure a score on the test?

I think that if you fairly qualified your semantics with teachers and parents in a discussion, few would argue that "teaching to the test", as one prepares an athlete for an event, is bad thing. I don't see people shuttering or recoiling from that thinking.

But the practice that follows this current extreme pendulum swing into "Standardized Testing" is such that many very important and necessary "thinking" skills, life skills and emotional skills are being set aside for mental regurgitation.

It is the "teaching to the test" to the "exclusion of" other things that offends the senses. We are going to have students miss music or physical education because they did not pass their benchmark test questions on the financial practices of the country of Mali in third grade. The financial practices of Mali are more important than educating a child to be healthy physically, creatively and emotionally.

It feels great to imagine that we can teach the whole child and cover the things we need to know in life Reading/Writing, Math, Science and Social Studies while accomplishing an AYP heading towards 100%. [Research suggests that the opposite is true...those subjects can be taught while participating in the Arts and PE!] But the reality doesn't quite gel with that.

Teaching to the test at the exclusion of those things NOT on the test offends...and should offend...educators who recognize that there is a human being they are charged with (not a computer). That their students will one day have to survive in a human world where not all the answers can be found in the information surrounding the problem they face.

Semantics can start a fight. I don't think it is something that should be ignored.


LJohn's picture
Director Testing and Research

Teach to the curriculum. A content valid test will match the curriculum in the test content. Where education folks go astray is when tests do not reflect the curriculum and then teachers instead need to disregard the curriculum and teach the content of the test.

Neal Capone's picture

Understanding the layout of the test and how to take multiple choice and short response questions is not a bad thing for students if it is not overemphasized. If a Standards Based test is well constructed then I do not see anything wrong with teaching to it. Math for example. If a high stakes Standards Based math assessment adequately tests both skills and conceptual understanding then teaching to it would be a great thing. That would mean that in order for students to be successful teachers will need to develop both skills and conceptual understanding. This may push teachers to search out the best research based strategies to accomplish this. On the other hand, if the test is highly skill based then teaching to the test would be a very bad thing if instruction was geared completely toward skill development. My rule of thumb is that if the high stakes assessments went away, would what you are doing still be best for kids? What is key is that there is a solid local curriculum that is mapped to research based state standards, well defined units with specific learning targets, and good data collected throughout the year that is communicated to all stakeholders. If this is the case, students, teachers, and parents will not be suprised by the outcomes on high stakes assessments. They will just be showing everyone what they already know.

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

The soccer analogy falls apart unless you think School is "the game." It's not. It is preparation for the bigger game, Life.

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

It is interesting that in a different blog containing an interview with Howard Gardner, he spoke of assessment: Let's get real. Let's look at the kinds of things that we really value in the world. Let's be as explicit as we can. Let's provide feedback to kids from as early as possible and then let them internalize the feedback so they themselves can say what's going well, what's not going so well.
I'm a writer and initially I had to have a lot of feedback from editors, including a lot of rejections, but over time I learned what was important. I learned to edit myself and now the feedback from editors is much less necessary. And I think anybody as an adult knows that as you get to be more expert in things you don't have to do so much external critiquing, you can do what we call self-assessment. And in school, assessment shouldn't be something that's done to you, it should be something where you are the most active agent.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

As a number of comments have noted and as you have indicated by the information in your commentary and subsequent comments, Ben, it really matters what the test is before one can decide if "teaching to the test" is acceptable or not.

If we're talking about the test really seeking to determine if the learner understands the material well enough to remember it AND to use it to address situations encounters [I use the word "vision" with my students - far beyond knowing the definitions, of value only if you encounter Alex Trebek], then "teaching to the test" is a valid goal of all educators.

If you are talking about teaching a bunch of facts, then it depends upon what those facts are. If the facts are considered to be part of the core knowledge [knowledge one must have to hold useful conversations and understand the answers from experts to our questions], then a factual test is necessary but not sufficient associated with "teaching to the test." For example, universally, facilitating students knowing their multiplication facts is a part of core knowledge and testing just those facts is fine AS LONG AS the learners are also tested on their ability to use those multiplication facts in the course of addressing a meaningful real-world problem as well. Facts such as knowing all the counties and their county seats in Pennsylvania [which I had to commit to memory when a student] I suppose might be considered core knowledge for Pennsylvania tour guides maybe but not for very many individuals. Personally I don't see the appropriateness of learning these facts, that is "teaching to the test" in this case.

Robert Moody's picture
Robert Moody
Elementary Music Teacher, Professional Clarinetist, Technology in the Class

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, see what 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 not teaching 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 should teach to the goals set for the developmental/cognitive stage of the students as outlined in a responsible and comprehensive curriculum. "Must we teach to the test"--the tests mandated by people sitting behind desks in offices far away from the classrooms? Unfortunately, it seems so.

Bob Plants's picture

Teaching to the test in my opinion undermines a learner's ability to apply the answer or the knowledge in real life contexts. In other words, the knowledge should be taught in ways where learners can see how its relevant in real life/authentic contexts. This is done in problem solving contexts not multiple choice questions. Problem solving supports a deep understanding of content thus the ability to use it in situations outside of testing.

My explanation while not as elegant as some, gets to the heart of the matter. Below is a link to a longer more scientific explanation that comes for the National Science Foundation.

National Science Foundation

3.There is increasing concern about "teaching to the test" in an era when there is much demand
for accountability. We need to devise tests that assess broad transfer so that accountability
does not end up fostering teaching that will not support transfer. Science tests are in special
need for attention. Technology can aid in the project of devising assessments that look at deep
conceptual change. Assessments focused on preparedness for future learning (e.g., solving a
relatively complex novel problem) may be more revealing of transfer than those focused strictly on analogous problems across isolated domains.

4.Many participants believe that "teaching to the test" may actually be self defeating, resulting in lower performance than teaching in a way that supports broad transfer. Research to evaluate the hunch that teaching for understanding may improve scores even on fairly traditional assessments should be supported

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