Opting In: Teaching to the Test (Part 2)

In my previous post I showed that “teaching to the test” has long been considered a sound instructional practice.  When it comes to teaching AP history or a foreign language, it seems obvious that instruction seeks mastery of a  specific curriculum, and that mastery is measured by a valid assessment.

How has “teaching to the test”, a term once used favorably among educators, morphed into a political slogan charged with negativity?  

Teaching to Standards

One profound change in education has been the implementation of state-level educational standards.   These standards have brought focus and uniformity across school districts, with a single definition of what students should be learning.  In turn, school districts select curriculum to achieve those standards of learning.  And a state-mandated assessment measures student progress toward those standards.

New standards restrict the creativity of teachers, in the sense that teachers can no longer organize their instructional time in any way they prefer, or teach anything they prefer.   Instead, teachers must work through a standards-aligned curriculum.  While innovation is certainly still possible within that curriculum, teachers have fewer degrees of freedom than they used to 20 years or even 10 years ago.   Gone are the days when the classroom was the teacher’s private domain, and they could teach entirely as they saw fit.  And the standardized test (in one sense) is a mechanism to ensure that teaching stays ‘on topic.’

standards for mischief

New standards also represent a raising of the bar for teachers (I am speaking generally, not about UCFSD).  Charlotte Danielson, a guru in the world of teaching practice, sees common core standards as demanding even better teaching.   Success in “teaching to the standards”, according to Danielson,  requires more sophistication from teachers, not less:

The common core rests on a view of teaching as complex decision making, as opposed to something more routine or drill-based…. It requires instructional strategies on teachers’ parts that enable students to explore concepts and discuss them with each other, to question and respectfully challenge classmates’ assertions. So I see the common core as a fertile and rich opportunity for really important professional learning by teachers, because—I don’t know now how to say this nicely—well, not all teachers have been prepared to teach in this way. I see that as one of the enormous challenges facing the common core rollout.

Critical ThinkingTeaching to standards (and thus to the test) has therefore been a change for many teachers.  It has reduced teacher autonomy, and also requires teachers to exercise new skills and drive higher-order learning.  So we are talking about a significant change to expectations, curriculum, and practice.  And not in the direction of dumbing it down or of drilling rote memorization.

Like any major change in a profession, practitioners need time and training to adapt.  Most districts are now exiting that change curve.  Now that new standards and new curriculum are in place, tests aligned to those standards and curriculum make more sense.   As the National Academic of Sciences report on High Stakes Testing says:

Tests should be used for high-stakes decisions about individual mastery only after implementing changes in teaching and curriculum that ensure that students have been taught the knowledge and skills on which they will be tested.

change curveThe loss of teacher autonomy coupled with higher expectations is a significant change for educators.  Changes that are this fundamental bring with it a full range of responses, broadly known as going through the ‘change curve’.  Perhaps some of the outcry about “teaching to the test”  is simply a normal response to a big change, rather than a principled objection to standardized tests?


New Curriculum Crowds Out Old Curriculum

This new regime of standards has some drawbacks.  When the curriculum is changed to align with new standards, what is taught in the classroom changes.  New content and methods can crowd out curriculum elements that experienced teachers found beneficial to previous cohorts of students.  I recently spoke to a teacher who, after the introduction of new curriculum, had to cut out some project work from the old curriculum that he felt was beneficial to students, because there was not time in the new curriculum for this creative work.  That is a tough trade off for a great teacher to accept.   Fighting back with words about “teaching to the test” may be an effective strategy, even if the true objection is more about the way standards and curriculum have been implemented locally.  (This teacher is not at UCFSD.)

The new curriculum also may change approaches to reading.  For example,  some English teachers have had to reduce the number of texts that are read in class.  While on the surface this may sound bad, there is a rationale for the change.  The common core has intentionally shifted instruction to deeper more intensive reading:  close reading, finding text-based evidence, writing from sources, interpreting academic language, and understanding an author’s point of view.  This change in emphasis results in less exposure to a broad swath of literature.  But it gives more emphasis to analyzing, re-reading, and understanding the arguments of fewer texts.

And in the area of writing, the standards place less emphasis on personal and creative writing and more on academic and informational/explanatory writing.  The common core made this change in order to (so the proponents say) better prepare students for the writing they will encounter in college and the work place … primarily non-fiction journal articles and persuasive argumentation.  Some will characterize this change as a narrowing of the curriculum and “teaching to the test”.  Others would say that the new method allows greater depth of study and enables students to devote more time to higher-order thinking.

Test Prep

Critics of testing have little patience with test preparation activities, especially memorization of de-contextualized facts (“drill and kill”) or repeatedly giving practice exams to students.  I tend to agree.  But again, we need to be careful not to paint with too broad of a brush.

test prepMost educators agree that familiarizing students with the format of standardized tests is a common sense step that reduces test anxiety and ensures students don’t make dumb mistakes.  (I am reminded of a True/False test I once took as a youngster.  The instructions said ‘Denote your answer with T / F.’  Not understanding the word ‘denote’, I answered all questions backwards and received a zero.)   So learning about how much time is allotted to different test sections, what types of questions will be asked, how to read instructions, and how to fill out answer sheets are all sensible ‘test prep’.  Yes, it is “wasted time” and no true learning takes place, but these are skills (for better or worse) our kids will reuse throughout their education and professional lives.

What about fact memorization?   Let’s consider an example from 3rd grade math.  One of our 3rd grade PA standards says that our students should be able to “solve problems involving multiplication through the 9’s tables through 9×5.”   (standard M3.A.3.1.2)

I think we can all agree that our kids should know their multiplication table.  So how do we teach this to our kids?  Several methods are used to teach the concept of multiplication, including bar models and manipulatives, following the Singapore math curriculum.  Once the conceptual foundation is laid by these methods, the “math facts” also need to be memorized.  Our UCF students are given weekly timed tests.  Students practice on their own with Study Island and First In Math online, and parents drill their kids until they have mastered single digit multiplication.   Is this “teaching to the test”?  Is it “drill and kill” to make our kids practice math facts until they learn them?   Or is it teaching our curriculum to impart useful knowledge that is subsequently tested?memorization

Some knowledge needs to be memorized along with the conceptual understanding.  Chemists-in-training need to understand the structure of the periodic table and each of the 18 numbered groups.  They also should memorize at least the noble gases.  Biology students need to understand the theory of evolution.  They also need to memorize the taxonomic ranks.  Foreign language students need to memorize words and grammatical rules.  Medical students need to memorize human anatomy.

Memorization is part of learning.  Memorization that builds a foundation for future learning is essential.  But of course learning is much more than memorization.calvin plymouth rock

More clearly on the bad side of the ‘test prep’ spectrum is ‘item teaching’.  Item teaching organizes instruction around test items from prior exams, and drills students on those items until mastery (of those items) is achieved.  There is plenty of evidence that this is not only bad for a student’s education, but is also ineffective as a test preparation strategy.   Studies have shown that unless one knows the actual test items on the exam, this test prep effort does not improve test results.  (If one does know the actual test questions, this is called  “cheating.”)

Metering Instruction

Another bad practice that has reportedly taken place in some school districts is what I call metered instruction.  Because schools may be sanctioned for low performance under NCLB, administrators may allocate resources in order to maximize district performance on the NCLB scorecard.   If a student is close to achieving ‘proficiency’, additional instruction and support will be provided until he crosses the proficiency line, then resources would be removed and redirected to the next below-proficiency student.  While this may achieve an important objective (getting all students to proficiency and improving equity) it fails students who are ready to learn more.   It does not maximize growth for all students.  (For a district like UCF, metering instruction is not a temptation, since we have little difficulty meeting NCLB requirements.)


So how did we get to a place where “teaching to the test”, despite its solid theoretical foundation as an instructional practice, has become a rallying cry to do away with testing?

  • New standards have given birth to new curriculum and teaching practices.  And the bar has been raised.  Some of the outcry about “teaching to the test” merely reflects dissatisfaction with the common core and its implementation.  “Teaching to the test” really means “I don’t like this whole standards – curriculum – testing” change.
  • Some schools have engaged in bad test prep, including excessive drilling, rote learning, and item testing.  A few have even resorted to cheating.   These are bad practices that deserve to be criticized.
  • And some districts with fewer resources, poorer residents, and huge achievement gaps have made the tough choice to prioritize raising students up to proficiency, rather than advancing all students.  While I think this is a sub-optimal decision, I understand why it was made.

Next post:   “Teaching to the Test – Part 3