“Teaching to the test” is an oft-repeated phrase these days. We discuss it a great deal in education because A) we’re doing it more than ever and B) everyone knows we’re not supposed to.
Testing should follow instruction, both sequentially and conceptually. Anything else is backwards pedagogy, an educational cart before the instructional horse. We begin instructional design by setting our goals for the unit, and then we develop our design by asking, “How can I best teach that, and how will I best determine whether or not the students learned it.” This is not the same as setting out to teach students how to pass the test.
Many interpret “teach to the test” as simply drill and kill, with an emphasis on the actual questions that will be on the test, a more complicated version of flat out cheating. But in the era of test-driven accountability and our lousy high-stakes standardized tests, it’s not that simple. There are other, more subtle but equally time-wastey means of teaching to a test.
Teaching to the test means instructing students in artificial, inauthentic tasks that they will find nowhere in the world but on a standardized test. The PARCC practice test involves a group of several possible ideas that one might find in the reading selection. The testee must click and drag the correct ideas into a box, and then select, click and drag the correct details from another list into boxes next to the boxes from the first part of the question. A teacher who is depending on those student test scores would be crazy not to do a few units on “How to answer these weird computer questions that you’ll have on the PARCC.”
Teaching to the test means teaching students how to navigate gotcha questions. Students now need to learn about distractors and the sorts of deliberate wrong answers that tests will throw at them in an attempt to trick them into choosing incorrectly. Never mind close reading the selection-- students need to close read the question and answers in order to discern what traps the test writers have laid.
Teaching to the test means teaching students how to write test-style essay answers. This does not involve doing what is generally considered Good Writing anywhere but in Testland. Test essay writing means recycle the prompt, use big words, and never, ever, get distracted by what you actually think. Test-style writing means figuring out what the test writers want you to say. Then say it.
Teaching to the test means preparing students for one narrow task, like teaching a chocolate lab to fetch. It is not so much teaching as training. It is not the work we signed up for as teachers, but it has become the work we are judged by.
Some make the argument that if we simply teach our students to be awesome, they will be able to transfer that awesomeness directly to the Big Standardized Test. This is like arguing that if we want to teach someone how to get from California to Ohio, a good test for that would be to demand that he shows up at the Meister Road entrance to Willow Park in Lorain without using the internet and riding on horseback while playing “Dixie” on an electronic kazoo.
Teaching to the test is not good pedagogy; good pedagogy is teaching the student and finding a way to let the student show you what she knows.
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