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Should We Coach Teachers on Teaching to the Test?

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Guest post by Dave SchorEdConnective thought partner, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education doctoral candidate, and regional director for Springboard Collaborative.

The current educational climate revolving around standards-based and teacher accountability has put schools of education, teacher-mentors, and teacher-coaches in a paradoxical bind. On one hand, concepts like culturally responsive teaching, pedagogical content knowledge, and differentiated instruction are being presented to preservice teachers. These progressive and critically lauded ideas are a stark contrast to elements of the drill-and-kill, test-based nature of many American classrooms. In such a landscape, do we support educators with courses and coaching around test prep or instead around progressive education topics?

"Teaching to the test" does not merely mean teaching the content that students will encounter on standardized tests. It also means teaching that content it in a way such that it literally reflects what the students will see on the test. Further, teaching to the test means teaching how to take the test, and what strategies will be best used when answers are not easily found. It means practicing in the silent, door-closed, high-pressure environment students will encounter. It means coaching students on how to properly fill in bubbles and, if necessary, erasing them thoroughly should they feel they've made a mistake.

While some of these are indeed good overall test-taking strategies and should be imparted to students at some point, they are a far cry from the theories and methods taught to young teachers. Most schools of education emphasize collaboration, creativity, varied methods, cultural sensitivity, exploration, and making connections across subject areas. The siloed and standardized nature of the exams students must take, and that teachers must give, leave little room for new teachers to employ the strategies they've learned in their respective programs.

This problem is compounded by the fact that, in many cases, students' performance on these exams directly correlates to teachers' ability to maintain employment. This is true for any school held accountable to standardized tests, not just schools performing poorly on them. Even in higher-performing districts, the pressure is on teachers to show growth: if 92 percent of your students were proficient last year, you are expected to achieve 95 percent proficiency this year.

The challenge for teacher-educators, mentors, and coaches then becomes this: hjow much do you teach your teachers about teaching to the test? Do you develop strategies to help your teachers efficiently address the test as they are likely going to have to? Do you forgo valuable lessons, discussions, and exercises on concepts like multicultural education and differentiated instruction in order to sufficiently prepare them for the drill-and-kill nature of education? 

I go back and forth on this issue. It seems wise to prepare teachers for the realities they will face, and to do your best to help them develop the skills and techniques they will need to be successful in these realities. But I question the message that sends to these inexperienced teachers. Does prepping them to efficiently prep their students for the test do more harm than good? Is it simply propagating a situation in education that few scholars would agree has any educational benefit to students? 

The answer likely lies somewhere in between. It really rests in the hands of the teacher-educators, coaches and mentors to assess where their teachers lie in terms of readiness to be thoughtful, intentional, culturally responsible educators while grappling with the realities of the current state of education. Moreover, with regard to propagating this state, the conversations associated with whatever steps are taken to prepare teachers for the test are as important as the information disseminated. These conversations must lead to reflections on navigating realities that we as educators might not agree with, but are forced to deal with. Reminding new teachers that they can and should be agents of change working within the confines of the system is paramount. In the end, I think it is the responsibility of the teacher-educator, mentor and coach to practice what he/she preaches by determining what and how much of this issue is covered according to the strengths, dispositions, and readiness of the new teachers with whom they work.

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