Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Teaching To The Test

Often when I bring up the issue of measurable results, people respond with the dread specter of "teaching to the test". This is the idea that, in order to maximize the scores on standardized tests, teachers will start spending all their time having students memorize multiple-choice answers instead of truly understanding the material. Let me explain why I do not believe this should be as important a concern as some make it out to be.

  1. Standardized tests are the only real way to compare different classes and schools. If you have seen a better, objective measurement, please point it out to me. But it is very difficult to compare students from different environments, classes, etc. A standardized test is one of the few measurement instruments that really is the same regardless of who is administering it or where it is administered. Even those who criticize standardized tests ultimately worry if their kids score low, and breathe a sigh of relief when their kids do well. We instinctively know that if you want to find out how much somebody knows about something, you do it by asking a bunch of questions on the topic.
  2. What's wrong with wanting students to know some facts? An important part of learning is to know the basic facts. While items testable on multiple-choice tests do not cover all aspects of knowledge, they cover a minimal basis that students need in order to achieve higher-level thinking. I've rarely been impressed by the "higher" mathematical reasoning of a smart student who had never heard of the Pythagorean Theorem.
  3. Parents can help judge elements of learning that cannot be measured by a test. This is one reason why I consider an element of parental choice so crucial in a school system. The parts of learning that cannot be judged by standardized tests need to be judged by the parents, in consulatation with the students' teachers. And if they believe their child is not effectively learning, they need to be able to easily move them to a different class, method, or learning environment.
  4. "Teaching to the test" is unlikely to result in exceptional test scores anyway. How do we best learn things? Is it by being presented a bag of disconnected, multiple-choice facts and told to memorize them? Or is it by fitting the facts into a coherent narrative? Think about, for example, the Civil War. A flood of images come to mind from when I studied this: the controversies over abolitionism, the failed presidencies of Pierce and Buchanan, Lincoln's fateful decisions to hold the Union together, etc. With this vision of the whole in my head, I think I will do much better on a standardized test than somebody simply given dull rote drilling on several thousand specific questions, unless they are an exceptionally talented memorizer. So, why would a teacher choose to "teach to the test" when there are more enagaging and effective teaching methods available?
  5. When teaching to the test is done, it is often an act of desperation or protest. I have heard of cases where the class lessons are thrown out to just practice tests over and over. But I largely view this as an act of either desperation, where teachers in the worst-performing schools have not been given the tools to succeed and want to show they are doing something, or of protest, where they do it so they can say "see what you're making me do" as a criticism of the tests. What I haven't heard much about is quality schools where the students achieve high test scores solely due to their strategy of teaching to the test.

I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on these issues as well.

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