More on the (mixed) virtues of teaching to the test

I said in my last post that teaching to the AP tests was, in some important ways, good for both my teaching and my students’ learning.


I had to begin each year with a tight schedule and stick to it. Since students and teachers share a temptation to slow the pace and take the occasional (or not so occasional) breather, this provided valuable discipline. I might not agree with all of the content that the College Board prescribes, or fails to prescribe, but I agreed with most of it. Moreover, I had to make sure that I taught as much of this content as possible.

My students, in turn, might grumble, but if they wanted colleges to grant them credit they had to make sure that they learned most of this content. Since the tests included essay as well as multiple choice questions, map and graph interpretations, and, in the case of AP European History, critical interpretation and synthesis of primary and secondary sources, students needed to develop critical reading skills as well as absorb and regurgitate information. In other words, for all their shortcomings, the AP tests encouraged students to meet the proposed national standards and actually absorb some information about history or government.

Teaching to the test offered us one other under-appreciated benefit. My students and I shared a common objective – and a common enemy. We both wanted the students to score well. And we both pitted ourselves against the College Board. Although I taught the class, I was NOT the final arbiter of success. Pandering to students by easing up might win me some short term approval, but neither students nor parents would thank me in the long run. Cajoling me would do students no good when their multiple choice answers passed through the Scantron and their essays landed at the table of the dreaded, anonymous AP essay “reader”.

Process-oriented tests are better than nothing. It remains to be seen whether, or how, these new “common standards” tests will be different from the so often maligned NCLB tests. And I wonder whether the tougher standards — however vague — will survive when they reveal, as I predict they will, even more glaring achievement gaps.

Stay tuned – the National Assessment of Educational Progress history test results come out this week.

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