Teach to the Test? Just Say No   –  Reading Rockets

By: Craig Jerald


It is possible for educators to make better choices about how and when to teach to the test than the alarmist newspaper articles and editorials would seem to suggest. This article from the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement aims to help readers think beyond simple compliance with federal law or basic implementation of programs.

Every spring, education-related newspaper and magazine stories raise the alarm that schools are teaching to the test. Scores of articles and editorials paint a disheartening picture of frustrated teachers forced to abandon good instructional practices for a relentless stream of worksheets based on boring, repetitive test-preparation materials. Even Hollywood actors are chiming in. Actress Alfre Woodard recently told a Louisiana newspaper, “My sister-in-law is left standing in front of her class with a pamphlet, teaching to the test because everyone must pass.”1

Although the phrase — and the concern — are hardly new, many observers blame the No Child Left Behind (NClB) act for escalating teaching to the test from a problem into an epidemic. The law “virtually transformed the concept of education,” according to a recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, “turning teaching and learning into a mere exercise in prepping students to test well.”2

What’s wrong with teaching to the test?

The phrase “teaching to the test” is used widely but seldom defined, causing much confusion about what it means and whether it is bad or good. Indeed, in a recent editorial in the Washington Post, the respected education reporter Jay Matthews claimed that teaching to the test simply means aligning classroom instruction and curriculum to standards; the practice is a good one that should be supported.3

Assessment expert W. James Popham helps to clarify the difference. He defines two kinds of assessment-aware instruction: “curriculum teaching” and “item-teaching.”4 Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions even though tests can employ only a sample of questions to assess students’ knowledge about a topic.

Item teachers narrow their instruction, organizing their teaching around clones of the particular questions most likely to be found on the test — and thus teach only the bits of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams. For example, item teachers might drill students on a small set of vocabulary words expected to be assessed rather than employing instructional strategies that help students develop the kind of rich and broad vocabulary that best contributes to strong reading comprehension.

The latter kind of teaching to the test is unethical. For one reason, it misrepresents how much students really have learned about a topic. in the example, students who learned only the 10 words on the vocabulary portion of the reading test will score well even though they have not developed a broad vocabulary, which is supposed to be the goal. in mathematics, students who have been drilled only on test-like questions do not have the opportunity to master a particular skill or concept and often cannot correctly answer questions that assess the same skill or concept in a different way.

Popham also contends that “because teaching either to test items or to clones of those items eviscerates the validity of [tests]… item-teaching is reprehensible. it should be stopped.”6 But the problems with teaching to the test go beyond the fact that it interferes with test validity. Parents and educators are much more concerned with how it affects the curriculum and classroom instruction itself.

For example, some worry that item teaching and other test-preparation strategies are taking over more of the weeks and months prior to testing. ” Others worry that the negative effect on instruction stretches back to August and September, with “drill and kill” strategies that substitute memorization for understanding and strangle good instruction all year long.

According to Lauren Resnick and Chris Zurawsky, the combination of accountability, the lack of a clear curriculum, and cheaper off-the-shelf tests is a recipe for bad teaching. “When teachers match their teaching to what they expect to appear on state tests of this sort,” they write, “students are likely to experience far more facts and routines than conceptual understanding and problem-solving in their curriculum….

Like Resnick and Zurawsky, many observers worry that drill-focused forms of teaching to the test can crowd out opportunities to teach students more advanced cognitive skills, such as how to solve problems and communicate effectively. They point to the work of economists, such as Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, who warn that all kinds of jobs, but particularly higher paying jobs, increasingly require fewer rote and routine skills and ever more complex skills. Analyzing tasks performed in jobs across the economy between 1969 and 1999, for example, Levy and Murnane found a big decline in rote tasks and routine work along with a skyrocketing demand for “expert thinking” skills (the ability to solve problems that require more than simply following rules or applying knowledge to new situations) and “complex communication” skills.9

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Fool’s gold and false choices

The decision to narrowly teach to the test might be bad for students in the long run, but is it really inevitable? Is there an unavoidable trade-off between helping students develop advanced problem-solving and communication skills they will need later in life and helping them perform better on standardized tests while they are in school? More to the point, do “drill and kill” strategies for teaching to the test actually produce higher test scores than other forms of instruction?

During the 1990s, Chicago instituted a number of accountability policies requiring students and schools to meet performance standards on nationally norm-referenced standardized assessments.

A trio of widely respected researchers — Newmann, Bryk, and Nagaoka — then affiliated with the Chicago Consortium on School Research, decided to investigate “What happens to students’ scores on standardized tests of basic skills when urban teachers…assign work that demands complex thinking and elaborated communication…?”11

The researchers conducted a three-year study analyzing classroom assignments and student gains on standardized tests across more than 400 Chicago classrooms in almost 20 elementary schools. Nearly 2,000 classroom assignments were scored based on a rubric that evaluated the extent to which the assignments called for “authentic intellectual work” from students — applying basic skills and knowledge to solve new problems; expressing ideas and solutions using elaborated communication; and producing work related to the real world beyond the classroom.

Newmann, Bryk, and Nagaoka then analyzed student test-score gains on the commercially developed, nationally norm-referenced Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) assessment and the state-developed Illinois Goal Assessment Program (IGAP) exams. The results were startling. In classrooms where teachers employed more authentic intellectual instruction, students logged test-score gains on the ITBS that exceeded the national average by 20 percent. However, students who were given few authentic assignments gained much less than the national average. A similar pattern emerged when researchers examined results on the IGAP assessments.

Those results strongly suggest that accountability and standardized tests need not be in conflict with good instruction, and that Resnick and others are wrong to assume that off-the-shelf tests require teachers to give up teaching higher level skills. “Fears that students will score lower on conventional tests due to teacher demands for more authentic intellectual work appear unwarranted,” the researchers concluded. “To the contrary, the evidence indicates that assignments calling for more authentic intellectual work actually improve student scores on conventional [standardized] tests.”12 in other words, teaching to the test by “dumbing down” instruction offers only a kind of fool’s gold, promising a payoff that it does not deliver. The choice between good instruction and good test scores is a false one.

Many experts also agree that some forms of direct test preparation can be healthy in small doses, and it might even be necessary for tests to provide valid results.

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Making better choices

Clearly, it is possible for educators to make better choices about how and when to teach to the test.

Cynthia Kuhlman, principal of Atlanta’s high-poverty, high-minority Centennial Place Elementary School, where nearly all students consistently meet state standards on Georgia’s assessments, says, “We don’t teach to the test here at all. We have a curriculum that is mapped to the state’s standards, and we teach almost entirely through theme-based projects. You would be hard pressed to find a worksheet at Centennial Place.”13

But some schools will need more than simple stubbornness to resist the lure of teaching to the test. Many teachers and administrators clearly do feel pressure to engage in “item teaching” and rote instruction; and, especially in states that use off-the-shelf norm-referenced exams, educators increasingly worry that they might be sacrificing higher scores if they do not.

It is time to overturn the common assumption that teaching to the test is the only option schools have when faced with high-stakes testing. Over-reliance on “drill and kill” and test-preparation materials is not only unethical in the long-term but ineffective in the short-term. Because there really is no trade-off between good instruction and good test scores, this is that rare case when educators can have their cake and eat it, too.