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The Most Misunderstood Strategy in Education

Repeating something often enough does not make it true. This axiom has particular relevance in the debate over how to improve test scores in today's accountability movement. In this context, no phrase is as overused and misunderstood as "teaching to the test."

The reason is a failure to distinguish between teaching to the actual items on a test (unethical and harmful) and teaching to the broad body of knowledge and skills that a test's items represent (effective and defensible). My views on the subject were published in the Christian Science Monitor on Apr. 17, 2008 ("Good Teachers Teach to the Test").

Let's suppose English teachers want their students to be able to write a persuasive essay in which they provide evidence to support a thesis. It behooves teachers to provide their students with practice doing precisely that, and then following it with feedback. That's sound pedagogy. Yet technically, it is also teaching to the test. But because students do not know beforehand which topic they will be asked to write about, it is not teaching to the actual items on the test.

This instructional strategy, of course, does not rule out teaching students how to write other kinds of essays. If teachers want their students to do so, they need to provide them with the same kind of practice and feedback. That's how human beings learn.

It's also a reminder that the curriculums in the U.S. are unwieldy. Teachers are provided with instructional objectives that in some states resemble small town telephone directories in length. These lists of goals sound impressive, but in actuality all cannot be achieved. Other countries are more realistic. They provide teachers with objectives that are not only fewer in number but clearer in meaning.

When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, the most useful course by far was the afternoon lab. The professor, a former Time magazine bureau chief, would provide us with practice writing news stories on a variety of topics. He would then critique what students submitted. None of his students ever knew beforehand what the subject would be, but the skills he inculcated provided all of us with the ability to write a news article.

Was he teaching to the test? Of course, he was. But it was what all effective teachers do, even though they are reluctant to admit it. That doesn't mean unanticipated circumstances can't be seized on. The best teachers are nimble enough to make shifts in their lessons as opportunities arise. Sometimes what develops is what students remember most vividly long after they graduate.

The reason teaching to the test has gotten such a well deserved nefarious reputation is that too many teachers have essentially provided their students with an advance copy of the test. This practice often accounts for the dramatic leaps in scores on standardized tests that are used today as alleged indicators of educational quality. It is a stain on the teaching profession.

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