Education Opinion

Teaching to the Test Is Good

By Walt Gardner — October 31, 2012 4 min read
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No, the headline above is not a typo. It’s recognition of a strategy that all effective teachers engage in, even though they are reluctant to admit it. The controversy arises from a confusion between teaching to the actual items on a test (indefensible) and teaching to the broad body of knowledge and skills that a test’s items measure (sound).

The villain is the test itself. If it measures only low-level cognitive standards that are instructionally insensitive, then the results will undermine taxpayer confidence in schools and teachers. But if the test assesses high-level instructional objectives that are instructionally sensitive, then the outcomes stand a better chance of convincing taxpayers that their money is being spent wisely. Let’s not forget that in designing any test, priorities have to be established because it’s impractical to assess all curricular aims.

This is where appropriate practice comes into play. “One reason is that the capacity of our brains is finite. Practice lets us execute a task while using less and less active brain processing” (“Practice Makes Perfect - And Not Just for Jocks and Musicians,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27). There will always be students whom I call “naturals.” They possess talent in the form of knowledge and skills that they bring to the classroom - rather than what they learn in the classroom. But for the vast majority of students, practice is the key to success. As Stanley H. Kaplan wrote: “Repetition breeds familiarity. Familiarity breeds confidence” (“Examined Life,” The New Yorker, Dec. 17, 2001).

I became acutely aware of the importance of practice when I was in journalism school at UCLA. One of the goals was for students to be able to write a news report about a current issue. Once a week, there was a three-hour lab in which students sat at their desks in a facsimile newsroom while the circulating professor peered over their shoulders as they banged away on their typewriters. (There were no computers in those days.) His remarks were always constructive and always immediate. This approach employed the essence of appropriate practice and immediate knowledge of results. Was this teaching to the test? Of course it was. But we never knew beforehand what the current issue we would be asked to write about. As a result, we were constantly required to apply our writing skills to different subjects. So when the final exam was given, we were well prepared.

When I was teaching English, I took great pains to provide my students with practice writing what I thought would serve them best in the long run. I concluded that making a persuasive argument would meet this need. Therefore, I gave them ample practice writing persuasive essays in which they had to take a position and support it with evidence. It’s not that other forms of writing were not important, but I had to prioritize. Was this teaching to the test? Definitely. But students never knew which topic they would have to write a persuasive essay about.

I used a variation when I taught speech during the first three years of my career. On the first day of the class, I asked each student one at a time to go to the podium in the front of the room while I sat in the back among the other students. I asked all students to introduce themselves and say why they were taking speech. This behavior became the baseline from which their progress could be measured. Some students who were blatantly nervous the first day went on to become self-assured speakers over the course of the semester. I suppose this could be considered a crude version of the value-added metric.

Since the administration was eager to build the speech program by having students participate in speech tournaments, I developed units built around the various tournament categories: humorous interpretation, dramatic interpretation etc. After each speech, students were asked to make constructive comments based upon a sheet that I handed out. This was my version of what my journalism professor taught me: appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback. The result was that students won a host of trophies and placed high in state tournaments held on college campuses. Those who didn’t want to take advantage of the opportunity also showed impressive growth from the first day of the class.

In short, if a test is well designed - and I admit that’s a big if - why shouldn’t teachers teach to the test? I’d personally prefer that standardized test results be used strictly for diagnostic purposes, as in Finland. But the reality is that this is not going to happen in this country. Therefore, I suggest we use our time and energy to design standardized tests that are sensitive to effective instruction involving the most important material. I think it’s the best way in the short run to reestablish support for public schools.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.