Opting In: Teaching to the Test (Part 1)

“Teaching to the Test” has become a catch phrase in the testing debate. And like many political slogans, it is designed to evoke a certain (negative) emotional response from us.  But if we carefully examine the ideas behind “teaching to the test”, we may find our negative response to be unwarranted.

“Teaching to the Test” is used today mostly in a derogatory way. According to the critics, standardized testing drives schools to “teach to the test”.  And if teachers must “teach to the test” then they will have to sacrifice other important learning objectives. This may happen at a macro-level if schools sacrifice Social Studies, Art, and Music on the altar of higher test scores in Math and English Language Arts. Or it may happen in the classroom as rote memorization and pre-test drills crowd out higher-order learning and project work that would better serve our students. Or so goes the argument.

Is “Teaching to the Test” Always Bad?

ChineseWhen I was learning Chinese in college, the course was organized around a Beginning Chinese textbook (which is surprisingly still in print). Each unit had a vocabulary list, one or two grammatical rules, reading and writing assignments, and pronunciation drills (on cassette tapes in those days!) Tests at the end of the unit assessed whether or not I could use the Chinese words to communicate in grammatical sentences, written and spoken. Because the tests were aligned to the curriculum, and my professor taught that curriculum daily, it is fair to say she “taught to the test”. Or a different way of saying the same thing is that the test assessed what was taught.

The ultimate objective of taking the course was not to pass the test, but to learn Chinese. The text book coupled with a good professor presented a path to that goal.  So there was strong alignment: teacher to curriculum; curriculum to test; test to goal.

Or consider how we learn to drive. If the driver’s ed instructor lectures on British Literature instead of the rules of the road, would we not be concerned? The point of taking driver’s education is not to explore the themes of Pride and Prejudice, but to learn how to safely drive a car. And that ability is demonstrated by passing the drivers’ license exam and road test.  A good instructor will teach students to drive and to pass the test.

Presidential Physical Fitness AwardA Phys. Ed. teacher prepares students for the Presidential Physical fitness test by getting them physically fit, especially by building strength and endurance in the physical skills which will be tested (pull ups, mile run, sit ups, flexed arm hang.)  By practicing specific exercises that will be tested, gym teachers are ‘teaching to the test’.

In some classes ‘teaching to the test’ is practically the stated purpose of the class.  Advanced Placement classes, by virtue of covering the AP curriculum, are designed around a test.   Because the content and skills covered in AP exams has been deemed relevant to student learning, instruction is designed around a standard AP curriculum, which is then assessed by an exam.  The exam assures colleges that what has been learned in the high school class is functionally equivalent to what would have been taught in the same course at their own institution.  AP classes teach concepts and content that are aligned to a test.

From these examples we can see that “teaching to the test”, in certain circumstances, seems consistent with delivering a sound education. When the test represents a body of knowledge or skills that is worthy of mastery, teaching to that end is a reasonable approach.

“Teaching to the Test” is a sound instructional practice

Beyond this anecdotal evidence, there is also a theoretical foundation for teaching to the test.  For many years professional educators and researchers have seen “teaching to the test” as a positive and sensible instructional practice. For example, Fenwick English, a former school teacher, superintendent, curriculum expert, and current Professor of Educational Leadership has written:

There is nothing wrong in teaching to the test if the test “matches” the objectives contained in the curriculum designed for delivery.  In cases where tests are to be used as accurate and valid measures for determining whether pupil learning has occurred as intended, one always teaches to the test.  If this were not the case, then test data would not have much to do with any specific curriculum and would be useless as a source of information to improve learning.

Standards Based Student LearningEven Diane Ravitch, who in recent times has become a vocal critic of standardized testing, allows that “teaching to the test” can (at least theoretically) have a place in a good education.  In her 1991 book she writes:

Teaching to the test is appropriate if the test gives students a chance to show that they understand and can use what they have learned.


If the tests are thoughtful and though-provoking, then teaching to the test makes sense, because the teacher is helping students prepare for the test.  The test should be an opportunity for the students to demonstrate what they know and can do.

Grant Wiggins, the co-author of the very influential Understanding by Design teaching framework, writes:

Practical alternatives and sound arguments now exist to make testing once again serve teaching and learning. Ironically, we should “teach to the test.” The catch is to design and then teach to standard-setting tests so that practicing for and taking the tests actually enhances rather than impedes education.

So “teaching to the test” has a sound theoretical foundation.  It has long been seen as a positive indicator of good teaching.  And it is at the heart of what leading educators have practiced and preached for years.

What, then, has happened in the last 15 years that has made “teaching to the test” synonymous with bad teaching?  We will take up that question in my next post.

Next post:  Teaching to the Test (Part 2)