Teaching to the right test

I wanted to share one of the best articles I’ve read recently on the vexing issue of “teaching to the test.”

Admittedly, I probably like this Washington Monthly article so much because it defends a point I’ve made repeatedly in this blog. Opponents of teaching to standardized tests should not rejected testing. They should insist on better tests.

The article begins with a telling indictment of standardized tests: a description of  how a clearly talented and dedicated English teacher abandons her best educational practices in the weeks leading up to standardized testing:

Working within a tight agenda, with five-minute intervals marked by a stopwatch, Voskuil began drilling the group. Together, the students read aloud an eleven-paragraph text called “Penguins Are Funny Birds.” Then they answered multiple-choice questions such as “According to the article, how do penguins ‘fly through the water’? A .) They use their flippers to swim. B.) They dive from cliffs into the sea. C.) They are moved by ocean currents. D.) They glide across the ice on their bellies.”

And why, Voskuil asked, is it important to read the italicized introduction that always accompanies such text passages? Because it’s a summary, the group responded.

Finally, Voskuil handed out her students’ scores from previous exams—eliciting reactions that ranged from apathy to sighs to celebration—and asked them to write down their “score goals” for the upcoming test. Remember, she told the sixth graders, “we are working toward a 3/3 on our DC CAS writing rubric.”

Voskuil hates teaching like this. It’s not that she fails to see the point, exactly. She knows that all this narrow drilling has, in fact, helped elevate her students’ scores (though they are still very low) in the three years since she has been teaching. And she recognizes the test’s value as a measure of some essential skills, and as a guarantor of her school’s and her own accountability. But the assessments confine and dumb down her teaching. “You are not even allowed to be a teacher when they are testing,” she says. “You are a drill sergeant.”

Yet the article goes on to contrast this approach not with a test-free educational environment . . . but instead with teaching to a better test:

Framing the problem of modern assessment this way makes perfect sense—until you consider that a couple of the most elite and highly regarded institutions of American secondary education involve a ton of what can only be described as teaching to the test. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses are essentially yearlong exercises in test prep. Yet you rarely hear anyone complain about them as such. Why?

The difference lies in the tests themselves, and the kind of preparation they demand. A run-of-the-mill standardized exam like the DC CAS is a test of “basic skills.” It asks students to do things like find the main idea of a text using a series of multiple-choice questions. An Advanced Placement test, by contrast, asks students to do things like analyze and interpret texts, construct logical explanations, and put facts in context, using a mix of multiple-choice, short-answer, and essay questions. All year, a student in AP American History is told what to expect on the final standardized exam: she knows she will need to become knowledgeable about a certain set of events spanning a certain period of time; she knows that memorizing a bunch of dates won’t really help her, and that being able to explain cause and effect will. It’s not that one model encourages “teaching to the test,” and the other doesn’t. It’s that one model causes shallow learning to crowd out the deep, and the other doesn’t.

The whole (long) article is well worth reading:



One comment

  1. Suzie

    I definitely agree that teaching to the test is only a bad thing when the test is bad. And so far, most state tests have been laughable. At current standards, teaching to the test is bad. I have a teacher, he says that many have accused him of teaching to the test because his classes always get such high test scores. He also says that he hasn’t changed what he teaches for the past twenty years.

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