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Is It Wrong to Teach to the Test?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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A high school female is holding a notebook in one hand and writing on a whiteboard at the front of the class with another hand. Two other students are sitting at a table nearby her.

Many of us would agree that teaching to the test has become an offensive phrase. I propose that teaching to the test may not be such a bad thing, as long as we are doing it in the right way and for the right reasons.  

An apt reason to teach to the test is so that your students can be successful in demonstrating their knowledge and skills. I am referring to designing instruction that directly builds knowledge and skills found on an end-of-unit test, or assessment. That assessment may be a project, an essay, or a lab experiment -- some way to evaluate if the students can apply the knowledge and skills they have learned. In Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe say that before we design the instruction, we must create the assessment first.

Sadly, that is easier visualized than realized, with myself included. Too often, I teach, and then I test what I taught. This process is far too common in all grade levels, primarily due to the lack of time and energy to plan. Unfortunately, this traditional method does not help the teacher, or the students, to maintain a laser-like focus on what really needs to be learned. The testing-after-the-fact mentality promotes mind-dump learning, where students temporarily remember only what is necessary to get by. Deep learning is never achieved this way.

Backwards Planning

Teaching to the assessment we have created beforehand is all about alignment of what we expect students to learn and be able to do, as well as how we get them to learn it and be able to do it. In the case of state testing, teachers have a general idea of what is going to be on the test, and they do their best to cover those bases.

The issue with that strategy is that sometimes we forget that the state test is a minimum-standards test. Frankly, the most important tests are teacher-made assessments that serve as learning tools for the students, and for the teacher. Much has been said about formative assessment, and most of it is on the right track, but it's not specific enough to really help teachers understand what it is and how to use it to help students learn.

Formative Assessment

The number one rule of a formative test is that a student must be able to take it again until mastery is shown. The true formative test becomes a learning tool that follows the rule of three; this rule states that students can only be expected to retain information or skills if they have had at least three opportunities to interact with the content in different ways. The first test may be a verbal quiz, the second, a series of warm-up questions, and the third may be a formal written quiz. The best examples of formative assessments are regularly used in language arts and history classes, like the rough draft essay. Students give the essay their best shot and turn it in. They get specific feedback from the teacher on how to improve it, and they revise and correct that same essay and turn it in again.

I have found that a simple entrance ticket to my classroom is a powerful way to teach to the test. I stand by the door and greet every student with a question. After several days receiving the same question, the students learn from their mistakes and eventually get it right. They feel good about themselves, and I feel good about their progress. Formative assessments must also provide timely feedback that is specific enough for your students to understand their errors and either ask for help or fix the misunderstandings on their own.

Formative assessments done repeatedly with specific, timely feedback, will drive the knowledge and skills deep into your students' realm of acquired knowledge and skills.

What successes have you had with using routine, formative assessments to increase knowledge and skills? Please share in the comments section below.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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Stan Skrabut, Ed.D.'s picture

If you are building your instruction correctly, you should definitely be teaching to the test. You should first write your objectives, then build your assessment. Once done with your assessment, you should write your lesson to achieve the objective that is measured by the assessment. This is instructional design 101.

Christopher Carlyle's picture
Christopher Carlyle
History Teacher, Seattle

UBD changed my teaching life and the learning lives of my students. The depth of their understanding of a subject showed not only in their test scores (which went up--making the administrative folks happy), but, more importantly, in the quality of their thinking and writing about the subject. By tightening my unit focus, I could more readily and clearly design assignments (formative assessments) to help students move closer to the goal (summative assessment); this helped me help them be more clear about skills and understandings that were necessary for success.

Michael's picture
Currently teaching Principal of two schools, but continue to teach at least one subject

My criteria explicitly state that students must be able to do unfamiliar problems/tasks in unfamiliar contexts. Students need to be able to transfer knowledge from the known contexts to the unknown; why else would you bother with any learning? The whole point of learning is to be able to develop/extract general rules and principles that can be applied in a variety of unfamiliar contexts; likewise students should be able to identify the true nature of the question or task. The more students are comfortable with the familiar, and the more time taken to increase automaticity and taught how to generalize, the easier unfamiliar tasks/problems become but too many teachers find the familiar comfortable and only teach that rather than the the skills of real learning, of insight and application of general rules in unfamiliar contexts. My method may not make for great test results, but it makes for fantastic learning and equips students for the real world. What is our goal, better test results or more learning? I should point out that my students excel at the familiar more and more because they are looking at the heart of the issue: the general rule or principle; the see through the words and distill the essence. The faster and easier this is, the familiar hardly need to be taught.

My formative assessment is largely focused on the unfamiliar; I mostly don't bother with formative assessment on routine or familiar tasks. Of course, the students must be gradually inducted into such a mindset and this takes 2 years to correct the teach the test mentality. First the teachers are taught how to think back to front and then they need to teach the students how to think. The results are deep learning, critical thinking and a desire to learn more.

The formative learning in our classes celebrate mistakes to teach students how to regroup and rethink. Employers want staff who can think, plan and analyze failure (ours or others) to give them a competitive edge.

A fantastic example of this is Back-to-front Maths (based in Australia). While I've never done the course, I've sent staff on it, and we have seen amazing transformations in student understanding and capacity for learning.

Annie Rutledge's picture

As a current undergraduate student, and recent high school student, I have firsthand experience with the "mind-dump learning" promoted by the testing-after-the-fact mentality. I have walked away from quite a few classes realizing I retained very little of the content. While I do agree that teaching to the assessment created beforehand is a great way in which to implement formative assessment, I think the culture of state testing is negatively influencing the encouragement of such assessments. Preparing for standardized tests is a combination of learning the information and learning how to take the tests. It is a question of student's mastery in understanding the tricks and strategies of the exams. While state tests are minimum-standards tests and the most important tests are teacher-made assessments, because many of the results of the tests determine school rankings and teacher salaries, teachers feel the pressure to teach to the state tests rather than their own formative assessments. I believe that the role and significance of state tests in the classroom need to shift in order for teachers to have the freedom to emphasize formative tests.

André Luiz's picture

I have not applied a formative assessment, but reading this text I remenbered the Keller's PSI (Personalized System of Instruction) that is a learning program used by Behavior Analysis and may can help you with backwards planning building.

*Sorry, I have a small english, but I tryed.

Katie Spear's picture

I like your idea of an Entrance Ticket as a tool for teaching to the test. I think this could be very effective in math. I teach a combination class, and I'm wondering how I might facilitate this with two separate curricula.

Mark Noldy's picture
Mark Noldy
21st Century Educator

Habit 2: Start with the end in mind! I totally agree with this. Could we imagine placing mechanics in a garage with a box of tools to serendipitously arrive at the most meaningful way to change the car's oil? Of course, there is an SOP for oil changes. We always start with the end in mind.

Sarah King's picture

I like the sound of an entrance ticket - though how do you implement this? Do you have a different question for each student, or get them to one question as their first task in class?

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


I find the entrance ticket to be easy to do and a great way to cement in the student's minds what you think is important for them to remember. The entrance ticket should be something they have already learned and need to remember. It is best if they learned it the day before. before the bell rings, I stand at the door and shake every student's hand as they come into class. Most schools have the wise policy of having teachers stand in the hallways between classes. While I am shaking their hand, I ask them a question. In a math class, it could be a mental math problem, or a vocabulary definition. I typically ask the same kind of question, though I change it a bit for each student. If a student gets stuck, I ask him or her to stand aside and listen to the next student answer the question and it gives them time to work it out on their own. I also get a pretty good gauge of how well the learning went the day before. If students are struggling, then I know I need to review somethings. Most of the time I can get through the whole class before the bell rings. But if not, it is not wasted time. For those that have already answered the entrance ticket, I have the warm-up or sponge activity on the board.

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