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?

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

  •  
Dean Dyer's picture

I think your analogy is a little backwards. I see standardized testing more along the lines of determining how good a soccer player one is by only doing certain drills on one day.

One soccer camp I went to in high school did just that. I remember getting full marks for dribbling and nothing for chipping, despite my practice being the exact opposite. But I happened to hit a groove on the actual test for dribbling and managed to hit not a single chip.

Isn't it better to do drills, scrimmage and actual games and form a holistic view of one's soccer playing abilities? I'm not against standardized testing, but only as a portion (and a rather small one at that) of what a student can do.

Bonnie Yelverton's picture
Bonnie Yelverton
Still looking for a way to use my credential in secondary math & science

We are teaching students for life, not the test. If we get the kids interested in the subject, they will also learn it, and do well on the test.
Of course it doesn't hurt to give them tips on test-taking every once in a while, so they know the tricks. But a test in NO WAY is equivalent to a game - life is the game!

Felicity Lear's picture

I agree with teaching to the test, especially when students move from one state to another and different styles of tests. As adults, we do it all the time - I adjust my c.v. and my cover letter to suit the job/school/position I am applying for, rather than having a generalised version that I send off all the time. It is the same information, but it is put in a way which emphasises the particular skills I bring to the position advertised. Similarly students can learn how to adjust their generalised skills to put them in a way which suits the test that they must sit - if they know about the test style! As an adult, I modify my conversation to suit the other adults that I talk with, and to suit the situation - and as any of us move around groups at a party, the style of conversation changes. Why not teach students that they must modify their general knowledge to fit in with the questions that they must answer on the state standardised test?

rory lance's picture

You cannot have it both ways. You cannot ask teachers to initiate a concept of differentiated learning, which gives students a multitude of ways to learn and be evaluated, and then judge both student and teacher solely on their test scores. Test scores are just one very small portion of a student's achievements and just one extremely traditional way to evaluate them. Some students do well on standardized tests and others do not. Some students do well on written analysis and others do not. Some students do well on class projects and oral presentations and others do not. The key is to have the students evaluated on a variety of levels covering all of these techniques and not depend entirely on one. But the present administrative mindset is to teach to the test because that is the only achievement evaluation that can be turned into easy to publish data that can be forced on the public at election time to garner votes.
In this culture of focusing only on test scores as the sole calibrator of student achievement, we have to also take this time to ask ourselves, what are we overlooking to the detriment of student learning? Does this teaching to the test culture make our children model citizens? Does it enable them to be independent thinkers? Does it train them to tap into their creativity to solve problems? Does it make them kind, sensitive or more understanding people? These too are results that schools are directly responsible for these days in the world of a two-paycheck household. Is there a way to evaluate a school's impact on these aspects of a child's existence?

bensjohnson's picture
bensjohnson
Education Consultant dedicated to improving schools, one teacher at a time

Rory:

I get what you are saying. But if you polled students about the testing, way too much testing I agree, they will tell you they are not worried about them. The students that are doing well in their school work don't sweat the tests at all, so why should the teachers. Focus on the learning, not on the tests and the tests will take care of themselves, as long as what is on the tests is a part of, basic part of, what is being taught. Our problem is that teachers and administrators freak out about the tests and focus all of their attention only on the test. That is like having a rocket that can take you to the moon, but only focusing on getting into orbit. All I am saying is that we should focus on the moon, rather than just getting out of the earth's atmosphere.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]You cannot have it both ways. You cannot ask teachers to initiate a concept of differentiated learning, which gives students a multitude of ways to learn and be evaluated, and then judge both student and teacher solely on their test scores. Test scores are just one very small portion of a student's achievements and just one extremely traditional way to evaluate them. Some students do well on standardized tests and others do not. Some students do well on written analysis and others do not. Some students do well on class projects and oral presentations and others do not. The key is to have the students evaluated on a variety of levels covering all of these techniques and not depend entirely on one. But the present administrative mindset is to teach to the test because that is the only achievement evaluation that can be turned into easy to publish data that can be forced on the public at election time to garner votes.

In this culture of focusing only on test scores as the sole calibrator of student achievement, we have to also take this time to ask ourselves, what are we overlooking to the detriment of student learning? Does this teaching to the test culture make our children model citizens? Does it enable them to be independent thinkers? Does it train them to tap into their creativity to solve problems? Does it make them kind, sensitive or more understanding people? These too are results that schools are directly responsible for these days in the world of a two-paycheck household. Is there a way to evaluate a school's impact on these aspects of a child's existence?[/quote]

bensjohnson's picture
bensjohnson
Education Consultant dedicated to improving schools, one teacher at a time

Felicia:

You sound like you get it. The test is not evil everyone makes it out to be. The evil is what poor teachers and administrators do when all they focus on the minimum standards, when they could focus on the maximum standards. I help a school right now that is a charter school, and has nearly all of its students passing the minimum standards tests for Texas. Any regular school would be happy with 99% passing rate, but this principal knows that that cannot be the goal. She uses the "test" to motivate her staff and the students to go beyond merely passing, and shoot for the commended performance, and higher scale scores. Each of the teachers of this school has standards that are higher than the state standards. Students have to be able to adjust but they should never be asked to adjust down. Thanks for your comment.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I agree with teaching to the test, especially when students move from one state to another and different styles of tests. As adults, we do it all the time - I adjust my c.v. and my cover letter to suit the job/school/position I am applying for, rather than having a generalised version that I send off all the time. It is the same information, but it is put in a way which emphasises the particular skills I bring to the position advertised. Similarly students can learn how to adjust their generalised skills to put them in a way which suits the test that they must sit - if they know about the test style! As an adult, I modify my conversation to suit the other adults that I talk with, and to suit the situation - and as any of us move around groups at a party, the style of conversation changes. Why not teach students that they must modify their general knowledge to fit in with the questions that they must answer on the state standardised test?[/quote]

bensjohnson's picture
bensjohnson
Education Consultant dedicated to improving schools, one teacher at a time

Bonnie:

You are absolutely correct. Good, responsive teaching is the key, not more test drills. Consistently teaching at the highest level will get students to consistently perform at the highest level. The solution lies with the teachers, especially the elementary teachers.

If you live in San Antonio, I know a principal looking for science/math teachers.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]We are teaching students for life, not the test. If we get the kids interested in the subject, they will also learn it, and do well on the test.

Of course it doesn't hurt to give them tips on test-taking every once in a while, so they know the tricks. But a test in NO WAY is equivalent to a game - life is the game![/quote]

Cynthia Higgins's picture

What is teaching to the test? Is it teaching test taking strategies like reading the questions then reading the passage or is it knowing exactly which indicators will be tested and teaching only those indicators? I do not believe teaching only the indicators is good teaching. I do believe teaching test taking strategies is a good thing. Students will be tested for the rest of their lives. Why not give them the tools to attack the test.

Majeda Tahboub's picture
Majeda Tahboub
Founder and Director at Jude for Learning Enhancement

I think that the usefulness of"Teaching to the test"could be superior to any thing else IN CERTAIN SITUATIONS. The TOFEL and SAT courses are teaching courses to the test. People who pass the test not only prove they can apply to....but also they demonstrate competencies wherever they have the chance to.

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