Is It Wrong to Teach to the Test?

Many of us would agree that good teaching is about designing instruction that directly builds knowledge and skills found on a test or assessment. 

February 19, 2016
Photo credit: ©Hero Images/500px

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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