Teachers who hear “teaching to the test” often cringe. The stigma attached to the practice of focusing on test-taking instead of solid instruction has developed alongside the pressure teachers face to produce high test scores. Educators entering positions of educational leadership must be aware of both. However, many assert that students can achieve success on high-stakes testing when teachers concentrate on core standards and broad curriculum content.
Teaching to the Test
What is teaching to the test? Many educators describe it as using clones of test items, such as math problems in which only the names, items or numbers are different. Here is an example of a real test question:
Mary has 24 hamburgers. Buns come in packages of 8. How many packages of buns does Mary need so that all hamburgers can be served with a bun?
A cloned question would look like this:
John has 24 hot dogs. Buns come in packages of 6. How many packages of buns does John need so that all hot dogs can be served with a bun?
The question is slightly different, but if students know how to solve the cloned question, they will know both how to do division and how to identify a division problem on a test. Since part of the test is identifying the proper operation to use, the teacher has essentially given the student part of the answer. To ethical teachers, this is too close to cheating.
Teaching to the Test Content
Teachers use real-life examples when teaching all content areas; when students see everyday reasons to learn math and spelling, they are more likely to engage the curriculum. The test question about hamburgers and buns is an example of how we use math in real life. However, by studying only cloned questions, students learn to look for structure instead of using the information provided to solve the problem on their own.
Teachers can avoid this dilemma by folding various test question formats into daily instruction. Since students learn in many ways, excellent teachers will present different wording, examples and strategies for solving the same problem. These teachers understand the end game and help their students get there. They set clear expectations for their students — and for themselves — that align with the school, district and state, while providing opportunities for their students to ask questions, solve problems and collaborate to find the right answers.
Teaching to the Test Structure
Many students experience a great deal of anxiety during tests. Helping them learn basic test-taking skills can help alleviate this anxiety. In fact, many educators feel that teaching students how to take a test is an essential part of the educational process. These skills include identifying question types, preparing for comprehension questions and improvising alternative strategies. While educators who teach to the test depend heavily on test-taking skills, these strategies can and should lead to deeper understanding.
For example, when learning reading comprehension, students often get confused about “what do you think?” questions. Many will go back to the text and look for the “right” answer. Teachers help students understand that this question does not depend on the author’s point of view and there is no “right” answer. By contrast, the question “What does the author think?” requires the students to support their answers with direct reference to the text. Helping students understand a question is not teaching to the test. It is teaching them to read carefully and analyze questions.
Including test-taking instruction during regular assessments is also important. When students cannot respond to classroom tests, good teachers will scaffold support. In multiple choice tests, they will ask probing questions:
- “What is the silliest answer?”
- “What answers can you eliminate?”
When the questions are open-ended, teachers ask, “What information is important, and what information is unnecessary?” Being able to eliminate wrong answers, read carefully and identify clue words are test-taking skills that will prove valuable at all levels of education.
Teachers at all grade levels have reason to worry about student performance, especially on standardized tests, but those in educational leadership can encourage teachers to be ready for the tests without teaching to the test. When principals and team leaders work together with teachers in all content areas, they can create a learning environment in which the test is just another way of assessing student progress. Instead of looking ahead to “testing periods” as times of anxiety and dread, they can help their teachers prepare, confident that strong instruction will make the difference.
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