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Teaching to the New Tests Is Sound Pedagogy

If the new standardized tests slated to make their debut in the 2014-15 school year turn out as their designers promise, classroom instruction will enter a new era. Until now, teachers have argued that the tests in wide use largely measure achievement of low-level cognitive goals. As a result, even if teachers were able to post impressive gains for their students, educational quality was unavoidably sacrificed in the process.

But the two groups responsible for creating the new instruments in English and math (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) have vowed to measure higher-order knowledge and skills. They will also include formative assessment to determine the status of students as they progress, and performance assessment to mimic real- world tasks. If they are successful, then teaching to these new tests deserves the highest praise.

Since the accountability movement began in earnest, I've always been puzzled by the short shrift given to Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain (David McKay Company, 1956). When I was at UCLA working on my teaching credential, Bloom's manual was one of the centerpieces of instruction. It made me appreciate the need to scrutinize my own objectives to see how many disproportionately reflected Knowledge (lowest end), rather than Evaluation (highest end), despite their high-blown wording.

By requiring students to demonstrate their problem-solving ability and critical thinking, the tests will force teachers and schools to rethink their strategies. They will need to ask themselves if their instruction is likely to help their students develop the wherewithal to achieve these goals. The answer to this question unavoidably involves providing students with appropriate practice. In athletics, it is referred to as specificity of training. It means that the closer the practice is to the ultimate behavior, the greater the likelihood of transfer.

If the instruments used require that students write a persuasive letter to the editor, for example, then it behooves teachers to give their students ample practice doing precisely that, followed by constructive feedback. This is teaching to the test, but students do not know beforehand the topic they will be asked to write about in the letter to the editor. The same approach can be taken in math. If teachers want their students to be able to analyze a particular home construction project to determine the most efficient way of solving it, for example, then teachers need to provide their students with adequate appropriate practice. Once again, students do not know ahead of time the exact problem they will confront.

Veteran teachers will be most directly affected by the new tests. That's because lessons that were useful in the past will likely need to be revised to reflect the more sophisticated standards. However, that does not necessarily mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Past successful lessons surely contain elements that can be upgraded with imagination. New teachers won't be totally spared, but at least they will not have put in the same time and effort beforehand that seasoned teachers already have.

But then again adjusting instruction to meet the needs and interests of students has always been what makes teaching so challenging.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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