There is nothing wrong with “teaching to the test”... If it’s a good test

By Andrew Pillow

Every now and then I like to lesson plan with other teachers. It’s a good way to hold yourself accountable. It’s also a great way to see the planning and working styles of other teachers. Me personally, I’m a backwards planner. I start with an exam and work my way down to unit and lesson plans from there. It’s actually the way I was taught.

One day I was working with a colleague who saw me begin a unit plan by reading some test items. Upon seeing this he remarked: “So you really do just teach to the test huh?”. Being a neophyte in the teaching profession I didn’t realize that he was implying this was bad.

Now that I am a veteran teacher I realize that “teaching to the test” has become a pejorative phrase in the teaching profession. But why?

Although this criticism has been around for a long time, the modern incarnation of the anti-teaching to the test movement emerges shortly after No Child Left Behind. An act by congress that placed far greater emphasis on standardized testing. Which in turn led to teachers spending more time drilling test items and leading rote memorization exercises... things that are colloquially referred to as teaching to the test.  

Critics of this style of planning often point out that students are often unprepared for the real life application of the skills they are supposed to be learning. For example, a math teacher who notices most of the test items are typically written in number form may not invest class time in teaching students to solve word problems. Craig Jerald of Reading Rockets cites a study that highlights just this phenomenon:

“For example, one study found that in a district that relied heavily on item drilling, 83 percent of students selected the correct answer to a multiple-choice item written as "87 - 24 =." However, only 66 percent could provide the correct answer to the open-ended item "Subtract 24 from 87."”

Criticisms of this style of teaching are well warranted and backed up by data. However, this often cited example is not how good teachers use assessments in practice. There is a difference between “teaching to the test” and attempting to teach the exact test. A good instructor knows that high quality summative or formative assessment can serve as a useful planning tool to illustrate goals and benchmarks for student academic success. Additionally, such exams help you check for understanding and measure progress along the way.

This is called "backwards design" and it is a perfectly acceptable and proven method of planning. Proponents of this style would argue that it is more accurately defined as teaching “with” the test as opposed to teaching to it but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that there is nothing wrong with using a high-quality exam to inform instruction.

Now the key phrase here is “high quality”. The main problem you see around the country in regards to teaching to the test is that the tests suck. Far too often teachers are using some low-quality state standardized test instead of their own well-crafted exams or a proven rigorous assessment.

Even in the examples that critics use, it is abundantly clear that the main issue is with the exams teachers are using as opposed to the practice of using an exam itself. Take the study Craig Jerald cited: The fact that a teacher felt like they could get away with not teaching students how to answer open ended math problems really says more about the awful standardized test that district was using than the teacher. The test should be aligned to the actual things students are supposed to know how to do. If you use a test that isn’t aligned then you get students that are only prepared for a narrow subset of learning and assessment.

No, teachers should not spend every waking minute teaching students how to answer multiple choice questions. They shouldn’t replace word problems and group projects with process of elimination drills. However, teaching without the end goal in mind and engrained in your lesson plans isn’t necessarily the best thing either.

Teaching styles are diverse and that is probably a good thing. So let me start my plans with assessments in peace.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.