Opting In: Teaching to the Test (Part 3)

“Teaching to the Test” has become a political slogan with negative connotations, but teaching to standards, against which students are later assessed, has long been considered a good teaching practice.

In my previous posts I looked at practical and theoretical support for ‘teaching to the standards’ (Part 1), and the reasons why ‘teaching to the test’ has acquired momentum as a negative slogan (Part 2).

Today we will look at a way forward:  how should our schools respond to state standards and mandated testing?

One of the reasons why “teaching to the test” has become a successful rallying cry is because there are some legitimately bad practices in some schools.  Those include:

  • cutting out arts, music, and social studies education
  • excessive drilling on test items
  • metering instruction
  • putting excessive pressure on students to do well on standardized tests
  • cheating schemes, organized by teachers and/or administrators

Who is responsible for instructional practices?

When critics of testing observe bad testing practices, they blame the test (“If there were no test, we wouldn’t have to teach to it”) or they criticize the politicians at the state or federal level who mandated the standards and accountability systems under which tests are used.

While it may feel good to blame Harrisburg or Washington DC, decisions about standards, curriculum, instruction, and preparation for standardized testing are in local hands.   Bad test prep is entirely under the control of the local community, acting through the School Board and the Superintendent.

dilbert blameWhat role does the state play?  The PA Department of Education (PDE) sets academic standards, and mandates that districts administer the PSSA to all students.  PDE also has all sorts of administrative regulations that districts must follow.  And PDE will publish the results of the PSSA by school.  But when it comes to classroom instruction, PDE’s role ends with the standards.   Local districts then take the standards, and decide what to do with them.

School districts are free to use the curriculum of their choice, select their own instructional practices, and hire whomever they please to teach (as long as the teacher is licensed).  Districts can align the curriculum precisely to the standards, take a looser approach, or ignore the standards completely.  Districts can ignore state assessments, use them as intended, or go overboard with testing fever.

When it comes to Unionville Chadds-Ford School District, Harrisburg does not tell us what to teach, how to teach, or what classes to offer.  Instead, UCFSD administrators and faculty choose the curriculum, set the academic and non-academic program, and hire instructors.  Teachers develop lesson plans and innovate within the chosen curriculum.  Teachers instruct students, drawing on their experience and training, with support from colleagues and principals.   All of these decisions and actions are made locally.

Does the existence of state learning standards create an overpowering incentive to cut out valuable parts of the curriculum, the arts, music, and science?  Are PSSA results so powerful that principals and teachers just discard what they know about good instruction, and infuse the classroom with item teaching and bad test prep?

Effective and Ineffective Responses to Standardized Testing

Researchers have examined the responses of local school districts to NCLB.  Notably, the decisions made by local districts are far from uniform.  And fully one third of the case studies find that schools respond with good curricular and instructional choices, by expanding content (nor narrowing it) and by increasing the integration across parts of the curriculum (e.g. embedding writing in a science curriculum).

Since the intent of NCLB and Rate to the Top is to improve the quality of education, it should not be surprising that some schools have responded in the expected way … by improving the curriculum and the educational program.

ChoicesThe most important finding is the simplest:  districts can and do adopt great teaching practices within a framework of state standards and annual assessments. In other words, school districts have a choice, and many are making the right decisions.

When it comes to “Teaching to the Test”, what do those choices look like?  Jim Burke, an award-winning public school teacher in California, who also advises the PARCC exam, offers a Webinar on the right way to teach to the test.   Jim tries to reclaim the historical high ground of “teaching to the test” by pointing  out that there right and wrong ways of instructing around standards:

Burke Teaching to the Test

According to Burke, when one teaches by design to the standards, and employs leading instructional practices, the learning results are excellent.  And so are the test results.

Further evidence for the sensibility of this approach comes from research on how to best teach writing.  A trio of literacy researchers looked at what happens to writing test results when teachers use the best teaching methods:

Students who have effective writing instruction score better on state writing tests than their counterparts who receive specific instruction in the skills assessed on the test….  The broadest and richest preparation in writing produces the highest test scores.  

What this really means is that the best way to achieve high test scores is to focus not on the test itself but on learning.  And this is done by having a challenging curriculum aligned to learning standards, employing excellent teachers, and embracing strong instruction.    When teachers teach with a standards-aligned curriculum, and bring their own innovation and energy to the classroom, then students learn and grow.  And the test results follow naturally.

The False Choice of Opt Out

The Opt Out movement has presented us with a false dilemma.  The current system (they tell us) requires us to test students, narrow the curriculum, dumb down our instruction, drill and kill, and suppress creativity in the classroom.  Our only other option, they say, is to opt out of standardized testing, scrap tests like the PSSA, and focus on student learning.

But there is a third and better path.  We can embrace learning and the benefits of testing.  We adopt a challenging and enriching standards-aligned curriculum.  We hire great teachers and give them professional development.  Teachers collaborate with equally-talented peers.  Principals create a strong and supportive learning environment.  All stakeholders (including parents and students) rigorously pursue student growth and learning, broadly defined.   Progress is assessed with standardized tests.  And we improve our instruction, curriculum, school climate, and school leadership based on feedback from standardized tests and other measures of student flourishing.

And I think this is very much the path that has been taken at UCF.  Unionville Chadds-Ford Schools embrace state standards and continuously pursue student growth and learning, broadly defined.   UCF teaches to and beyond the standards.  UCF seeks to fully develop our student’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills.  UCF offers a full and enriching curriculum, while still aligning to Pennsylvania learning standards.  And annual testing is one (but only one) measure of our progress.

“Teaching to the Test” revisited

When we hear someone talk about “Teaching to the Test”, we should pause and think about what the speaker means.    We should get beyond the slogan.   In their book Asking the Right Questions about Schools – John and Chrys Dougherty gives use some common sense advice on this subject:

‘Teaching to the test’ is good when it means ‘preparing students to do well on the test by teaching the subject’.

‘Teaching to the test’ is bad when it means ‘teaching students only a few things so that they’ll pass the test’.

Is the school preparing my child to do well on any test that would cover the subject well?  Does the school understand that, if the students have strong skills and knowledge, the test scores will take care of themselves?

Do educators in your local school act as if their main mission is to raise test scores – no matter how?  Of do they understand that their job is to promote student learning, which will lead to higher test scores?


In response to testing, some school districts cut arts and music, excessively drill on test items, and put pressure on students to perform on standardized tests.  This is a mistake, and it is wholly unnecessary.   Such practices reflects flawed thinking, and poor oversight by the communities that allow such practices to take hold.

Testing should serve our schools, not the other way around.  If schools use test results as indicators of progress, rather than as the goal in themselves, then this trap is easily avoided.

I believe UCF is on the right path.  And we should stay on it by encouraging all students to learn, by providing them outstanding instruction, with engaging teachers, in well-equipped facilities, in schools with a vibrant and supportive culture of learning.  And by using assessments to tell us how well we are doing, and where we need to make adjustments.

toll boothTests are merely a toll-booth on the way to our destination of student growth and achievement.  They help us see how far we have gone, and they serve a useful purpose on our journey.  We should ensure our students pass through those checkpoints with proper preparation.   But we will never confuse the checkpoints with our destination.

UCF’s curriculum and educational program continues to evolve in response to standards and standardized tests.  Our top teachers and administrators have selected and put in place a challenging curriculum, aligned to PA standards, that is analyzed and fully refreshed on a five-year cycle.   Our educators teach to and beyond the standards by following that curriculum and innovating around it.   Our instruction is informed by best practices like early-age reading groups, and ability-group math classes.  We avoid item testing and de-contextualized fact memorization.  We know that if we have a strong curriculum, taught by excellent teachers, then the test results will take care of themselves.   If you want to call that ‘Teaching to the Test”, then sign me up.

We should buy into the false dilemma of Opt Out.  We don’t need to dump testing in order to have great schools.  Exhibit A is UCF schools.  Q.E.D.

One thought on “Opting In: Teaching to the Test (Part 3)

  1. Anonymous

    It’s kind of like the quote about democracy being the worst possible form of government … except for all the others. What is the alternative to “teaching to the test”? NOT teaching fundamental reading and math skills? After all, that’s what the PSSA tests.

    Good blog post.

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