Good teachers teach to the test

That's because it's eminently sound pedagogy.

I have a confession to make. For the entire 28 years that I taught high school English, I taught to the test. And I'm proud to finally admit it.

I know that fessing up to this perceived transgression will reflexively draw clamor from everyone with children in school. That's because teaching to the test is considered tantamount to cheating on your income tax returns. But stay with me here: This type of reaction is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of both curriculum and instruction.

If we're being honest, teaching to the test is done by almost all other effective teachers. In fact, I did so – along with many other an effective educator – way before teachers were evaluated on the basis of their students' ability to perform on the standardized tests that now constitute the sine qua non of accountability.

That's because it is eminently sound pedagogy.

There is a distinct difference between teaching to the broad body of skills and knowledge that a test represents (good), and teaching to the exact items that will appear on the standardized test (indefensible and illegal). Teaching students how to answer a particular set of items that appears on a test shortchanges them ethically and educationally. The confusing part arises when we fail to make that distinction.

Let me be more concrete. If one of the goals of an English course is for students to gain the ability to write a persuasive essay that contains a thesis statement supported by evidence, then it behooves the teacher to provide students with practice writing persuasive essays that contain both.

Practice is accompanied by critique from the teacher. It's the feedback from the teacher that lets students know if they're on the right track to mastering the required skills.

Technically, this is teaching to the test, but because students do not know beforehand what question they will ultimately be asked, it is instructionally defensible, helpful, and educational. In fact, it would be irresponsible for a teacher to provide students with practice writing descriptive or narrative essays that aren't the type to be tested. It's not that such writing is wrong or harmful. On the contrary, both have their places in English classes. But giving students such writing practice does not help them master the skills to write persuasive essays – the types of essays that are on the test.

In sports, coaches have long "coached to the game." They identify the best way of transferring practice onto the game field. They design routines and scrimmages that mimic as closely as possible what will ultimately be required in a particular game.

If track coaches want a team member to run the 100-meter dash, for example, they don't have them run a 10K. There may be some overlap, but it is not enough to justify the time and effort involved to spend a good chunk of practice working on it.

Again, that's different from coaches fixing the game or the race.

The distinction is crucial in today's debate over the method used to identify effective teachers because it also calls into question another widely misunderstood concept – the curriculum.

In an attempt to help schools provide a quality education, reformers mistakenly believe that covering as much material as possible is the way to go. But this approach is counterproductive. It overloads teachers by designing a curriculum that emphasizes breadth over depth.

The result is that teachers are given far too many targets to aim at in their lessons. These extensive lists of high-blown objectives certainly look impressive on paper, but they cannot realistically be addressed by teachers in their day-to-day instructional decisions. This is particularly the case when classes are composed of students with a wide range of individual differences. And this doesn't even take into consideration the time constraints of a given school year, which puts great pressure on teachers in planning their lessons.

In light of the demands of the accountability movement, teaching to the test is an issue that needs to be fully understood.

So the next time you hear that your child's teacher is "teaching to the test," think about this: The teacher may well be engaging in perfectly solid instruction.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer at the UCLA Graduate School of Education.

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