I have heard the phrase ‘teaching to the test’ many times before but as I did not know the real meaning of it, it sounded like a good thing. I have a feeling that I am not the only one who thought so, so I think it is important to clear up some of the confusion.
Assessment expert W. James Popham defined two kinds of assessment-aware instruction: ‘curriculum teaching’ and ‘item-teaching’ (Popham, 2001). Curriculum teaching focuses on full body knowledge and skills, and the test that follows only has a sample of questions that assess students’ knowledge about the topic. According to Drake, Reid and Kolohon (2014) this form of teaching prepares students for the test, rather than teaching to the test.
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Conversely, item teaching consists of very narrow instruction based on specific questions that are likely to be found on the test. In other words, only teaching the bits of knowledge that students would be tested on. This is what the phrase ‘teaching to the test’ refers to. Some teachers choose to take part in this unethical form of teaching because they are afraid that their students’ low grades may reflect poorly on themselves. Thinking back to my elementary and high school years, I distinctly remember being taught how to solve very specific types of problems prior to my EQUA testing, and very specific types of writing styles prior to my OSSLT, and I believe there are many issues with that.
Firstly, teaching to the test misrepresents how many students have actually grasped the topic, and this diminishes the validity of the test (Popham, 2001). However, it goes way beyond that, another significant concern is how it affects curriculum and classroom instruction itself. Teachers who practice this method spend weeks or months preparing for the test, which takes away from curriculum teaching.
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Resnick and Zurawsky (2005) suggest that drill-focused forms of teaching to the test can get rid of opportunities to teach students more advanced cognitive skills, such as how to solve problems and communicate effectively. They point to the work of Levy and Murnane (2004), who claim that all kinds of jobs, but particularly higher paying jobs, require fewer rote and routine skills and more complex skills. They argue that young people who are denied the opportunity to develop such advanced skills will be at an increasing disadvantage in the changing economy of the 21st century (Levy & Murnane, 2004). That means educators who settle for "drill and kill" instruction, or who do not at least balance such instruction with more complex assignments, are trading long-term benefits for students for short-term gains on standardized tests.
Drake, Reid and Kolohon (2014) give the following suggestions for preparing students for a test rather than teaching to the test:
- Do not teach students the exact items that will be on the test.
- Give students practice with question formats prior to testing.
- Bear in mind that there are times when students are able to perform better on tests than others.
- Give students information about the nature of test. (Drake, Reid & Kolohon, 2014, pg. 162)
Clearly, teaching to the test is a big no no, but there is definitely a lesson to be learned from it. I believe this whole problem stems from standardized testing, which has recently also been well known as a big no no among educators. Standardized tests do not take into account student individualities, and lead to a one-size-fits-all curriculum. These tests encourage a cookie-cutter approach and as long as they exist, and there are high-stake tests such as them, teachers are going to prepare students in whatever way they can, which leads to teaching to the test.
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Overall, this entire problem stems from one thing: our education system is not changing as our students and society change. For that reason, I thought it was very interesting what Levy and Murnane (2004) postulated. Teaching to the test does not allow students to learn the 21st century skills that they will need in their futures, and in order to put a stop to this unethical form of teaching, we need to stop putting educators under the spot light and placing so much pressure on them. We need to focus on what is important; and that is the success of our students in our rapidly changing society.
Drake, S. M., Reid, J. L. & Kolohon, W. (2014). Interweaving curriculum and assessment: Engaging 21st Century Learners. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Popham, W. J. (2001). Teaching to the test? Educational Leadership, 58(6), 16'20
Resnick, L., & Zurawsky, C. (2005). Getting back on course: Standards-based reform and accountability. American Educator. Retrieved February 20, 2016, from http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/spring05/resnick.htm