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How to Avoid Teaching to the Test

Since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002, states have held their schools accountable for students’ performance on standardized tests. Indirectly, this also tests teachers’ performance; how students perform on standardized tests reflects the teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom. As a result, many teachers are tempted to “teach to the test,” or adjust their instruction solely to improve students’ standardized test scores.

The Pitfalls of Instruction Geared To Standardized Tests

Teachers are commonly motivated to improve their students’ scores in order to protect their jobs, and this kind of pressure can require them to teach differently than they otherwise would. Since the No Child Left Behind Act establishes baselines for acceptable student performance, teachers can end up aiming no higher than that baseline — they can begin to settle for mediocre instruction and will not encourage students to achieve more than the minimum required score. As a result, teachers can end up focusing more on their low-achieving students than on challenging middle- and high-achieving students.

Another pitfall of teaching to the test is that it promotes accelerated instruction because teachers must cover a wide array of material in a short timeframe, which forces teachers to rely on shallow lessons across a broad spectrum of topics rather than in-depth instruction of any one subject area. As a result, students come away from their primary and secondary education with only superficial knowledge, and they struggle with in-depth study when they get to college.

Ways to Avoid the Pitfalls

Networking with other graduate students while pursuing an online master’s degree in education can provide inspiration to develop a teaching style that avoids teaching to the test. Experienced teachers can also help newer teachers avoid teaching to the test by providing mentorship and their success stories. Teachers cannot simply stop covering the material on each year’s tests without putting their schools and their careers at risk. Instead, they must find creative ways to cover this material while challenging their students to take ownership of their own in-depth study.

The most successful teachers develop lessons that cover standardized test content, but they do not rely on actual test material for teaching drills or rote memory. Their lessons encourage creativity and deep thinking, and they focus on the big picture rather than the tiny details. These teachers help students understand the overarching concepts of the subjects they teach rather than solely training students to perform well with surface material.

Another important way that teachers can avoid teaching to the test is by focusing on assignments that require students to develop their own ideas and expressions. Teachers can encourage writing in all subjects rather than relying only on multiple-choice assignments (which can encourage guessing) or short-answer questions (which encourage short-term memorization or cramming for the test). Teachers can also assign group projects to promote collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, relationship building and conflict resolution.

The stakes are high for teachers when it comes to students’ performance on standardized tests. Teachers do not want to miss out on improving their students’ scores while also proving their own effectiveness as educators. In the long run, however, teachers must find ways to improve their students’ scores without sacrificing in-depth learning.

Learn more about the LSUS M.Ed. Curriculum and Instruction online program.


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