Is teaching to the test bad?

It all depends on the test and the teacher. If the test measures the skills students are expected to be learning and teachers prepare students by teaching those skills, then teaching to the test is a good thing.

But if the test is not directly related to what is being taught or teachers depend on repeated drills with old test questions to prepare students, it’s a different story. Teaching to the test can waste valuable learning time.

No Child Left Behind puts testing on the front burner

The federal No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), which went into effect in 2002, has caused schools to “be accountable,” which translates into focusing a lot of attention on state standardized testing and results. It requires all schools to test students in grades 2-12 in reading, math and science. Each state chooses its own test and standards of proficiency. Schools that don’t show that students are making “adequate yearly progress” toward achieving proficiency are subject to federal sanctions, including loss of federal funds, providing free tutoring, allowing students to transfer to another school, and if all else fails, a complete restructuring of the school.

Critics of the law say that the emphasis on testing in reading and math means other subjects, such as social studies and the arts, are getting less attention. Some schools have even done away with or cut back on recess time because of the pressure to spend more school time preparing students to pass state tests.

On the positive side, students across the country (particularly in the lower grades) have made progress in basic skills in reading and math, but studies show that the improvements don’t necessarily hold up in middle school and beyond, when the tests get more complex and critical thinking skills are necessary.

It’s all about alignment

In the wake of NCLB, there is much talk about aligning instruction, curriculum, standards and assessment. This basically means that teachers and students have a clear idea of what they are expected to learn. In the best of all possible worlds, the state provides textbooks and curriculum that match the standards, and the tests measure achievement of the standards. Most state Departments of Education are working to devise systems that do just that, but many are not there yet. A study by the American Federation of Teachers found that 11 out of 50 states completely met the criteria for having both strong content standards and documenting that the tests align to the standards, specifically in grades 3 through 12 and subjects (reading and math) required by NCLB.

Some test-taking skills are important to learn

When students spend time preparing for tests, they learn valuable skills. Time management, understanding reading passages, following directions, knowing when certain answers can be eliminated — these are all important test-taking skills that students need to know as they progress through school and their career paths.

Matthew Matera, a middle school teacher at a charter school in the Boston area, says that he “teaches to the test,” by teaching test-taking strategies. But he says that doesn’t interfere with teaching his core curriculum. He integrates test strategies into his lessons.

“It’s a part of the instructional program, not a separate thing,” he says. “Standardized tests ask students to demonstrate reading passage comprehension, to derive the meaning of words from context, to pull out facts where needed and to draw connections. These are all skills of a good reader and they are required in professional life, too.”

Tests can be used as diagnostic tools

Tests can be used successfully for diagnosing specific areas where kids need help and then providing them with extra help in those subjects. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina has instituted a quarterly assessment program. Their chief accountability officer, Jonathan Raymond, says: “We’re utilizing the data in a diagnostic way so that we can constantly intervene and so teachers can see how students are learning. Are we really teaching and are students really learning? That should be our focus, and the test is just one way to determine that. We’re looking at scores not as a witch hunt but as a treasure hunt. We want to find the success stories, highlight those and share with others in our district what’s working.”

Focus on the tests brings attention to state standards

Good test preparation focuses on making sure that students are meeting state standards, rather than focusing on test-prep activities, says Jeanie Fritzsche, a current district-level curriculum coordinator, and former teacher and mentor in Irvine, California, schools. She notes: “We encourage our teachers to focus on grade-level content standards rather than the test.’ We specifically discourage ‘test-preparation’ activities and try to foster the understanding that our students will do well as long as they are proficient in their grade-level standards.

“My personal experience has been that in spite of the stress surrounding the state-mandated testing, without the test many teachers would be less conscientious about addressing grade-level standards. If we consider the standards to be a means to ensure instructional equity for all students then I think it is important that all students — regardless of the district or school they attend, or who their teacher is — have access to instruction in those standards. If it is necessary to mandate assessment in order to be sure that this happens, we may have to live with that until and unless we, as a profession, can devise a better way to be sure that all students are guaranteed a high-quality educational experience.”

“There is a big difference between teaching to the test and teaching the test,” says Nancy Grasmick, Maryland’s state superintendent of schools, in a recent article in the American School Boards Journal. “If you’re teaching to the test and you’re mirroring good teaching that will enhance learning, then we don’t see anything wrong with that.”

When there isn’t alignment, there are problems

Problems arise when the state test is not aligned with the standards. Students are then tested on skills that may not be part of the curriculum and schools feel pressure to have their students perform well on state tests because these results are published in the local newspapers. Test prep then means taking time away from the standards-based curriculum to teach test items and test-taking skills. Howard Everson, formerly with the College Board and currently professor of psychometrics at Fordham University, sees problems with these non-aligned state tests: “Many of the large-scale assessments (state tests) are too far removed from curriculum and instruction. They don’t provide enough information back to the classroom. And the state agencies are not quite sure how to deal with the problem.

“They’re reliant on testing contractors and restrained by budget. It’s expensive to align testing with curriculum and they are not willing to make the investment. They want something cheap, which is not necessarily good. They cut and paste parts of tests used in other states. To create good tests, they need to involve teachers and give them release time from the classroom to help create tests, and that becomes very expensive for states to do that properly.”

Test results alone don’t tell the whole story, notes Raymond. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, they are looking at quantitative measures (the test scores) and qualitative measures (attendance, writing assessments, literacy-building activities across the curriculum) to see how schools and students are performing. “We’re trying to dig deeper,” he says.

Where does teaching critical thinking fit in?

Some teachers feel that the emphasis on testing takes away time from teaching critical thinking and problem solving. Steven Weinberg, a teacher on special assignment in Oakland, California, where a major part of his job is “helping teachers teach to the test,” says: “The trouble with teaching to the test is that the standardized tests are not by their nature able to measure meaningful learning and emphasize the trivial rather than the essential.

“Take, for example, writing. Instead of measuring how well students can express themselves clearly, the tests ask students to select the best wording from four choices, often written about a topic that the students are not familiar with. As teachers prepare students for this kind of test, they are encouraged to forego having students actually write compositions, in favor of practicing multiple-choice test prep. In history, the emphasis is on specific facts rather than historical understanding. In math and science deep understanding is sacrificed for coverage.”

But middle school teacher Matera has his own view on teaching, testing and critical thinking: “I am pushing my students all the time to do critical thinking. Critical thinking requires that you are able to use certain strategies on tests. In order to do reading comprehension, you need to do critical thinking. It’s part of a good instructional program and a good instructional program will prepare students to do well on tests.”

Is there too much emphasis on the tests?

An Education Week survey in 2000 showed that 66% of teachers thought that state tests were forcing them to concentrate too much on what was tested, which meant other important subject matter was not covered. Subjects like social studies and the arts, which are not mandated for testing under NCLB, get less attention.

Many testing experts prefer performance-based assessments — those that require students to demonstrate critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. These tests typically require students to write open-ended answers to demonstrate writing skills or show how they came up with the answers to math problems. But the majority of state tests are of the multiple-choice variety. States shy away from performance-based tests because they tend to be expensive to score and have problems with reliability in scoring.

High stakes mean high risks

High-stakes tests — those tied to determining whether or not students are promoted from one grade to another or graduation, or those that offer cash bonuses for schools and teachers — have forced schools to focus on raising achievement levels and have made the public feel more confident that a high school diploma means that students have the skills they need to succeed. But they have also provided incentives for students, schools and teachers to cheat. Incidences of cheating on state tests have been reported in West Virginia, Connecticut and Maryland. The Herald-Leader, a newspaper in Lexington, Kentucky, found the state had received 151 complaints of cheating on the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System tests (KIRSIS). “When you raise the stakes,” says Raymond, “You run the risk of having these issues. When you narrow your focus you also run the risk of lowering excitement around learning, of not capturing the imagination and passions of child in learning and wanting to achieve.”

Tests are here to stay

Some argue that students need to learn how to take tests, regardless of whether they are aligned to state standards, because tests are a part of life, both in school and beyond. “I have never found ‘teaching to the test’ all that peculiar,” says Leif Fearn, a teacher educator at San Diego State University in California. “We teach to the driving license test and the bar examination for attorneys in every state. Medical students pay heavily for preparation courses before their medical examinations, and most real estate brokers take courses that prepare them for their licensure examinations. Only in education do we demonize teaching that accommodates the mandated high-stakes tests.”

There’s obviously a need for both teaching the skills necessary to succeed on tests, and preparing students to think and engage in learning. “We need a balanced approach. We need to teach children to problem-solve and provide a solid foundation for success beyond high school,” says Raymond. “How are we preparing students to succeed in college and beyond? A high school diploma is not enough today. We want to prepare our students to succeed in meaningful jobs in the 21st century. If teaching to the test limits us in providing solid skills, then it’s something we need to examine closely.”

Questions to ask at your school

Do you know how your school and your district approaches standardized testing? Here are some sample questions you might ask of your school principal, your school site council and/or your child’s teacher:

  • What are the content standards for each subject and grade tested?
  • How are the tests changing the nature of teaching and learning at the school?
  • Does the school use test results to identify areas that need improvement or to target support for certain students?
  • What is the school doing to address any differences in achievement among particular groups of students?
  • How much time and what kinds of activities do teachers use to prepare students for tests?
  • What is being sacrificed to make room for these test-prep activities?
  • Are subjects that are not being tested (such as social studies and the arts) being adequately covered in the curriculum?
  • What is the school or district doing about students who consistently score below grade level?