What's wrong with 'teaching to the test'?

Standarized tests simply mean we are setting high standards for our students.

All signs point to 2006 being a crucial year for testing in America, with the first national results from the new SAT due, as well as significant changes under way in how states use the tests that rate schools under the No Child Left Behind law. If only, then, we could figure out a way to speak clearly to each other about what we think of the many tests our children are taking.

Let's start by trying to clarify what I consider the most deceptive phrase in education today: "teaching to the test."

Teaching to the test, you may have heard, is bad, very bad. I got 59.2 million hits when I did a Google search for the phrase, and most of what I read was unfriendly. Teaching to the test made children sick, one article said. Others said it rendered test scores meaningless or had a dumbing effect on instruction. All of that confused me, since in 23 years of visiting classrooms I have yet to see any teacher preparing kids for exams in ways that were not careful, sensible, and likely to produce more learning.

There are, of course, ways to teach to the test that are bad for kids and that occur now and then in schools. Principals afraid that their scores would look bad have forced teachers to go over the same questions from old tests day after day, to prepare for some state assessment. But there is no evidence that this happens often. Strong teachers usually raise a ruckus, administrators back down, and everybody goes back to the traditional lesson reviews that all good teachers use.

When we say "teaching to the test," we should acknowledge that we are usually not talking about those drill fests. Rather, we often use the phrase to refer to any course that prepares students for one of the annual state assessment exams required under the No Child Left Behind Act. For reasons that escape me, we never say a teacher is "teaching to the test" if she's using a test she wrote herself. We share the teacher's view that what she is doing is helping her students learn the material, not ace the test. But if she is preparing the class for an exam written by some outsider, the thinking goes, then she must be forced to adhere to someone else's views on teaching and thus is likely to present the material too quickly, too thinly, too prescriptively, too joylessly - add your own favorite unattractive adverb.

Yet if you asked the thousands of educators who have written the questions for the state tests that allegedly produce all these terrible classroom practices, they would tell you their objective is the same as the classroom teacher's: to help kids learn. And if you watched the best teachers at work, as I have many times, you would see them treating the state test as nothing more than another useful guide and motivator, with no significant change in the way they present their lessons.

Those who complain are not really talking about teaching to the state test. Unless teachers sneak into the counseling office and steal a copy, which can get them fired, they don't know what's on the test. They are teaching not to the test but to the state standards - a long list of things students are supposed to learn in each subject area, as approved by the state school board.

Hardly anybody complains about teaching to a standard. Teacher-turned-author Susan Ohanian is trying to change this, and she refers to all advocates of learning standards as "Standardistos." But she has not made much headway, mostly because standards make sense to parents like me. We are not usually included in discussions of testing policy, but we tend to vote in large numbers, and everybody knows that any governor or president who came out against standards for schools and learning would soon be looking for work in the private sector.

So why do we still talk about how terrible it is to teach to the test? I think it comes from our fear of the unknown. Those of us who are not teachers don't know what is going on in our children's classrooms. And teachers don't know what harm might come to them from the test results, as interpreted by often-wrongheaded people such as principals, superintendents, politicians and, particularly, parents.

Conversations about this would go more smoothly if we didn't have such distorted views of what teaching to the test means. We might instead turn the discussion to what methods of instruction work best or how much time our children should spend studying.

In some classes, such as the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Cambridge courses that have become popular in Washington-area high schools, the need to prepare for a challenging exam outside the teacher's control has often produced a remarkable new form of teamwork. Teacher and students work together to beat an exam that requires thought and analysis, not just memorization. If that is teaching to the test, let's have more of it.

Jay Mathews covers education for The Washington Post. ©2006 The Washington Post Company.

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