Teaching to the (good) test is good

Teaching to the Test Is Good — if the test is good — writes Walt Gardner on Reality Check.

When he studied journalism at UCLA, students practiced writing news stories in a three-hour lab. The professor provided immediate feedback. Students practiced the skills needed to pass the final exam — and to work as reporters.

When I was teaching English, I took great pains to provide my students with practice writing what I thought would serve them best in the long run. I concluded that making a persuasive argument would meet this need. Therefore, I gave them ample practice writing persuasive essays in which they had to take a position and support it with evidence. It’s not that other forms of writing were not important, but I had to prioritize. Was this teaching to the test? Definitely. But students never knew which topic they would have to write a persuasive essay about.

As a speech teacher, he developed units based on speech tournament categories such as humorous interpretation and dramatic interpretation.

After each speech, students were asked to make constructive comments based upon a sheet that I handed out. This was my version of what my journalism professor taught me: appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback. The result was that students won a host of trophies and placed high in state tournaments held on college campuses.

Gardner would prefer to use standardized tests only to diagnose problems, but that’s not going to happen, he writes. “Therefore, I suggest we use our time and energy to design standardized tests that are sensitive to effective instruction involving the most important material.” It’s the only to build public support for public schools, he concludes.

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  1. I’ve always assumed that, when teachers write their own tests, they ‘teach to the test’. My students know that I talk about/assign reading and projects over what I expect them to learn, and then I ask them to write about it or apply it on the test. If a standardized test is good, I’d think that it would work the same way.

  2. This is done all the time for AP courses. My kids all had enough AP credits to start college as sophomores and all of their AP classes used old questions/tests for all of their quizzes and tests.

  3. All teachers test what they teach. It’s annoying when they don’t do that. My son just had a Physics test that included material the teacher didn’t cover. That’s why students always ask if something will be on the test even if the teacher only briefly mentions a topic. Educators might like to think that students should be able to extrapolate their knowledge into new areas, but that can be quite unfair.

    “Teach to the test” is usually a complaint tied to content or goals not defined by the teacher. It also refers to outside (state) tests that they don’t agree with, especially if the test focuses on basic skills. They think they have to spend more time on basics rather than more important things; that there is little linkage between skills and understanding. Of course, what does understanding mean if you can’t do the basics? What other skills or knowledge makes it OK to flunk tests of basic skills? For the students who do well on state tests, what are the parents doing at home?

    The other assumption is that if one focuses on what is on the test, then there will be no time left over for big picture and conceptual understanding ideas. I’ve never seen any proof of that. Educators talk about balance between skills and understanding, but it’s clear that many really, really don’t believe in ensuring mastery of skills. They want to believe that understanding drives skills, not the other way around. They spend all of their class time on real world, group-oriented, active learning with little regard to ensuring mastery of the basics. They think this is the solution to issues of rote learning. It doesn’t it work. Then they send home notes telling parents to practice “math facts” with their kids.

    The “rote” bogeyman allows educators to turn the classroom completely around so that they focus on understanding and not skills. Then they complain about “teaching to the test” when it’s clear that this process doesn’t work. They talk about “mere facts”, “superficial knowledge”, and “rote skills” rather than foundational knowledge and skills.

    This is a philosophical idea that allows educators to focus on the interesting (for them) things in class and to avoid the very difficult issue of ensuring mastery of the basics. They point to students who do well, but never ask what their parents do at home. They talk about engagement and motivation as if that those are the key variables that drive mastery of the basics. They get to do the fun stuff as the guide on the side and the onus for mastery is left completely up to the student. Flipping the classroom makes this worse. Students now have to do the hard work of listening to lectures and doing homework sets at home while the teacher does the fun stuff during class. This educational meme starts in middle school with the idea that students have to take charge of their own learning to become “life-long” learners.