Nothing in the debate about improving schools is arguably more misunderstood than teaching to the test (“No Child Left Behind: how to end ‘teaching to the test,’ ” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 23). But the truth is that all effective teachers do so even though they are reluctant to admit it.
I begin by assuming that a test is well designed and measures high-level cognitive goals. If a test meets these criteria, then it allows valid inferences to be made about a teacher’s instructional strategies and provides invaluable feedback to students about their mastery of the subject matter taught.
Nevertheless, there is a distinct difference between teaching to the broad body of knowledge and skills that a test attempts to measure and teaching to the actual questions that appear on a test. The latter practice is unethical and shortchanges students. Cheating scandals in Atlanta schools and elsewhere are examples.
If a teacher has done a good job, students have been given ample practice and critical feedback in developing the competencies called for by the test. When I was teaching English, one of the objectives called for students to be able to write a persuasive essay of about 400 words. Although no standardized test was given in California in that era to determine if students had achieved that goal, I believed that it was important. As a result, I began the unit by passing out carefully selected letters to the editor from various newspapers to serve as models of persuasive writing. I provided students with practice and feedback doing the same. From there we moved to editorials and op-eds, followed by practice and feedback.
At no time during this unit did I teach descriptive writing or any other form of writing. Was I teaching to the test? Absolutely, because my instruction was restricted to the kind of persuasive writing that would be required on the test. But students never knew beforehand what the actual question would be. All they knew was that it would require them to make a persuasive argument and support it with evidence. I maintain that this approach constitutes sound pedagogy. Yet I realize that teaching to the test will always be considered cheating.
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.