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Teaching to the Test: Is it a Bad Thing?

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I often hear complaints and criticisms about teachers who are "teaching to the test." The complainers act as though there is something inherently wrong with this practice or that it is somehow an illegal act. I want to challenge this way of thinking with a brief Q&A:

• Did you have to take final exams when you were in high school? (This answer is always yes.)

• Did you not want the teacher to teach the material that would be on that final exam? (Again, yes.)

• So, good teachers would not test students on curriculum the students had never seen before, right? (Right.)

A critical point in these considerations is the strength of the curriculum. When tests are based on a strong curriculum that teachers use as the basis of their instruction, then students benefit from that type of teaching to the test. On the other hand, students suffer if the curriculum is weak.

Of course, I do not mean that students should be shown the exact questions that will be on a test. And it is important to understand that teaching to a strong curriculum does not mean spending an inordinate amount of time teaching students test-taking skills. But I do believe students should be exposed, during the regular course of the school year, to the type of formatting they will see when they are tested.

There are some who believe that we should not test students at all. I disagree. Strong teachers must have both formative and summative ways to know how their students are progressing and to guide their work in helping students improve. Granted, testing is complicated, and there is much that can be written and discussed about the pros and cons. But in the end we must have tools that allow us to know what is working and how our students are progressing. And we cannot afford to wait until the end of the year to find out whether our students actually learned what was taught. (Some people contend that countries that outperform the U.S. do not test. Their tests might not resemble ours, but their teachers clearly assess student progress.)

The Baby Boomers among us surely will remember weekly and/or chapter tests. And just the phrase "pop quiz" can still raise your anxiety level. Good teachers used these tools to ensure their students were learning. Today's technology gives teachers many options for formative assessments. For example, teachers have shared with me that they find formative tools such as Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) extremely valuable.

As you engage in discussions on the issue of teaching to the test, I ask you to remember your school days and make sure the conversation includes advocacy for strong standards (Common Core) in your schools. Supporting teachers to teach to these standards will benefit all of our kids.

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