Teaching to the test

Ever since standardized test results became tied to school success and teacher performance, there has been a correlating rise of complaint that teachers are only teaching to the test. What exactly does teaching to the test mean and is it a bad thing?

Teaching to the test means that curriculum is developed around the material that will be found on standardized tests in an effort to raise test scores. Opponents of this method argue that this negatively limits school curriculum to a “drill and kill” technique, which they claim limits understanding of the material.

Two general philosophies exist relative to teaching to the test: concept teaching and item teaching. In concept teaching, course curriculum is designed to teach the concepts that students will come across on the tests (e.g., solving systems of linear equations). This method includes instruction on why and how things work the way they do – it’s teaching a way of thinking. Item teaching, on the other hand, generally does not include teaching a way of thinking. Teachers and schools using this method are more prone to simply present past test questions and teach their students how to solve the with little, if any, in-depth explanation as to the hows or whys it works. This approach leaves students struggling to apply this information beyond the scope of the test, or even a particular kind of problem. Opponents of teaching to the test, it seems, are primarily against this particular method; they have little to say that is not instantly refuted by the concept method. Item teaching aside, is this a bad thing?

It seems fairly logical to teach to the test. While imperfect, standardized tests cover material that everyone of a certain grade should know. Simply put, it measures competency of the original Rs – reading, writing, and arithmetic.

For example, by ninth grade, everyone should be able to successfully perform the four basic mathematical functions and properly apply those to basic algebra and geometry; read a paper and be able to correctly identify the main idea; and to write an essay with a solid main idea that is free from detrimental organization and grammar. In other words, drill and kill aside, you simply must know and understand the subject matter. I can’t think of one person I know who hasn’t used some form of flashcard or another to learn something, be it math, vocabulary, or neurochemical functions. The challenge becomes what you do after you know the basics.

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