Teaching To The Test
The phrase “teaching to the test” commonly means the practice of using a state-mandated test as a guide in deciding what to teach and how to teach it. However, this simple definition understates the complexity of the issue. On one hand, teaching to the test can be a case of the tail wagging the dog, where the needs of the test becomes more important than the teaching. It can even indicate an attempt to subvert the testing process, to beat the system. But seen in a positive light, teaching to the test can describe purposeful efforts to teach students knowledge and skills that have been established as important and included in mandated standards and assessments.
Why has this become an important issue?
Almost every state now has mandated tests for students. More and more, test scores are used for accountability-to make decisions about school accreditation, staff job security or pay, and student promotion and graduation. As the tests have became more high-stakes, the practice of teaching to the test has also increased dramatically. School personnel want their students to succeed and show what they know on the tests, and they often feel pressure to use any means available to raise scores. However, while families and the general public are demanding higher standards and higher scores, there is increasing concern, sometimes very vocally expressed, that the time and effort spent teaching to the test is educationally shortchanging students.
What’s wrong with teaching to tests?
There’s nothing wrong with teaching the general content and skills included on a test, as long as the test is assessing the “right” things and asking students to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that parallel real-world applications. The problem often develops when a test does not match standards for what students should know and be able to do, covers a very narrow set of objectives from the broader base of knowledge and skills included in standards, or includes mostly items that focus on recall of isolated facts. In cases such as these, both experts and practicing educators fear that teaching to the test may:
– narrow or distort the curriculum;
– emphasize use of short-term over long-term memory;
– discourage creative thinking;
When is teaching to the test appropriate?
In general, the better the test, the more it can be used as a guide for good instruction. There is much less controversy about teaching to the test when the test itself:
– reflects solid content standards;
– assesses a broad range of knowledge and skills;
How can we teach to the test the right way?
– Legitimate teaching to the test is not instruction targeted at specific items that will appear on the test, or that appeared on last year’s version. Instruction can, however, appropriately be targeted to the general content and skills that will be assessed.
– Although subjects specifically included on state-mandated tests (often mathematics and reading) should be taught, schools should not shortchange other core subjects such as social studies and science, or enrichment courses such as art and music.
– Students should be made familiar with the format of the tests, including the types of questions. But even if the tests emphasize a single format (for example, multiple-choice questions) students should also be given experience with other types of test questions, such as short-answer and essay questions.
– Teaching to the test can involve a moderate amount of instruction in test-taking skills, but these skills should be generalizable so that students can use them on other tests as well. For example, teachers might remind students to read directions carefully and give them practice doing so, but students should not spend much time practicing very specific test-taking activities, such as filling in answer bubbles.
– Teachers should use a variety of instructional methods (for example, some that emphasize critical thinking skills) even if the state-mandated tests themselves stress memorization and recall.
So, is it okay to teach to the test?
There is no easy answer.
Both educators and the public agree that it is important to help students master the knowledge base established in national, state, and district standards. Students should also be helped to acquire the skills needed to accurately demonstrate their knowledge and skills on whatever assessments are used.
In deciding how much to teach to a state- or district-mandated test, educators should think about the quality of the test itself. The better the content and format of the test, the more useful it will be as a guide to high-quality instruction. In a perfect world, teaching to the test would automatically provide students with solid instruction. But schools operate in the real world, and the tests themselves are not always perfect. Educators find themselves weighing the goal of high student scores against broader educational needs, with student achievement hanging in the balance.
Why has the use of assessment data gained attention recently?
Over the last ten years, standards and assessments have played a growing role in public schools. Most states now require schools to give their students an array of specific standardized tests that are often used both to rate schools and districts and to make decisions about student promotion, retention, or high school graduation. Whether you see the increase in mandatory testing as a blessing or a curse, the fact remains that assessment plays a big part in education today. On the positive side, educators are developing increasingly more sophisticated ways to use assessment data to improve instruction. This application of data-based decision making can be a powerful tool at the district, school, and classroom levels.
How can data-based decisions improve instruction?
Whether an assessment is mandated at the state level, required by the district, or developed by a school or a teacher, it will yield results that indicate what individual students or groups of students know. These results can be used to improve instruction in a variety of ways. Here are just a few examples:
– The test results of an individual student, in particular his or her responses to specific test items, can indicate the skills the student has mastered and the skills in which he or she needs more instruction. Students can be provided with extra help in areas where they are weak, preventing them from falling behind.
– Class results can show individual teachers areas that most students did not master, so that teachers can find ways to teach those areas more thoroughly or effectively. They can also show areas where teachers are doing a good job, areas most students are mastering.
– Assessment results can provide a focus for school improvement plans based on how well most students scored in various subjects.
Is there any evidence that using assessment data can improve instruction?
Current research provides plenty of evidence that assessment data can be a powerful tool to guide instruction. For example, a new study found that schools that were successful in closing the achievement gap for minority students tended to make sophisticated use of assessment data to examine student performance. Similarly, in a study of six school districts that have been successful in raising student scores on state-mandated tests, all of these districts began their improvement efforts by carefully reviewing test data. And after studying successful schools to determine why they were doing well, we identified “using data to drive improvement” as one of the keys to success.
How does a school create a data-based assessment system?
The first step in using assessment data to improve instruction is to identify the key questions-to ask what the school or school district wants to learn from the data. Some possible questions are: How are our students performing in relation to standards? Why are our students performing at the level they are? What can we do differently in order to increase the number of students meeting or exceeding standards?
Other important steps in the process of using data to guide instruction are:
– collecting and organizing assessment data;
– examining student performance data to identify strengths and weaknesses;
– considering what the causes of strengths and weaknesses may be;
– making plans to address needed areas; and
– using data to monitor improvements.
What are the components of an effective data-based decision making system?
According to research, most schools or districts that have effective data-based decision making systems do the following three things:
– They employ a data expert (for example, a Director of Program Improvement and Data Analysis) at the school or district level. This person helps principals and teachers understand assessment results and make decisions about how to use data to improve instruction.
– They provide staff development to help principals and teachers learn how to use data effectively, and give teachers time to analyze and discuss assessment results in building, grade-level, and departmental groups. Most data-driven districts and schools are finding that they need to reorganize their schedules to provide opportunities for teachers to work together.
– They have access to good data. Educators need to become aware-and to make their communities aware-of the quality of the assessments they are using. The “best” assessments are those that have been carefully aligned with standards, because these assessments provide information about knowledge and skills that students should be mastering. The results of these assessments then need to be presented in a “disaggregated” form to provide information about the performance of specific student groups.
Schools that have embedded use of assessment data into their instructional improvement efforts have also found that one annual test does not provide enough information to allow teachers to adjust their instruction to students’ changing needs throughout the year. Many districts have developed additional, short assessments that are directed to the specific needs of their schools and students and that parallel the state-required assessments.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.