Teaching to the test seems to be a universal phenomenon in countries that have a standardized testing system. No matter how hard some test developers try to design a test that will be testing skills rather than factual knowledge, be multidisciplinary and cross-curricular, teachers keep figuring out what curriculum content will be covered by the test and what will not and refrain from paying much attention to the latter. Many people say that teaching to the test is healthy--by doing so we ensure that a significant part of our students learn at least what is considered to be the most important part of the curriculum. Others argue that teaching to the test is a bad practice because most tests remain focused on factual knowledge rather than on understanding, which would have made teaching to the test more legitimate.
My country, Russia, does not have a long record of using standardized testing in schools (students today take two tests, in the 9th grade, at the end of compulsory education, and, at the end of 11th grade, in preparation for college entrance). Therefore, it is possible that some test developers are just not skilled enough to design tests for understanding or particular skill orientation. There are complaints by the public that all high school teachers do in class is train their students to successfully pass the tests. Not only do they emphasize relevant parts of the curriculum, they spend a lot of time helping students to master the format of the test.
Our final exams are 60% multiple choice items. One can hardly think of a real life situation in which a person might be confronted with a need to choose one correct answer out of four options carefully presented to him or her. Therefore, when students spend hours training to use such a test format, instead of learning skills that they would be able to use outside the school walls, they are probably wasting a lot of time.
But what is even more alarming in [my view] is the growing tendency "to learn to the test." In Russia, in order to pass the final exams a student needs to take exams in Russian language and in math (in 2020, English language exam will also become mandatory) and then to select three additional school disciplines in which he or she would want to be examined. What is already happening in junior high schools is that students stop learning disciplines they think they would not choose and narrowly focus on subjects they perceive to be good at.
In one of the best Russian universities all students studying social sciences failed a simplest geography test. They were asked to name the capital of the United States, to show St. Petersburg on the map, and to name any three of the world oceans. Only 5% could answer all the three questions, and when others were asked why it was that they did not know answers to such simple questions they mostly responded that they had realized a long time ago that they would never choose geography to be one of their final exams.
Elena Lenskaya is the dean of education at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and a World Bank consultant on education programs involving assessment and quality assurance.