Quit Hiding the Ball—We All “Teach to the Test”

One of the more common responses to performance-based measurement systems and an anthem of its critics is that performance-based decision-making in education further enshrines one of the "evils" of modern teaching practices. The argument goes something like this: by measuring teacher outcomes of student performance, "teachers are encouraged to teach to the test instead of teaching _______" [insert the content/skills knowledge of your choosing].

Here's a little secret from a former educator turned education policy graduate students: everyone teaches to the test.

The difference between "those teachers" and the acceptable ones, however, is what one of my law professors would probably call the "test/test" distinction. Meaning, critics are choosing to distinguish bad teacher practices from good teacher practices based on teachers who adopt the test that one prefers versus the other teachers who adopt a test that one does not prefer.

I offer this: teaching to the test is what each of us has been conditioned to do and having been taught to the test is what has made us each successful in our various fields.

Now, that said, let me stop hiding the ball and get into the meat of what I am trying to say.

Life has tests. In my athletic youth, I competed on the swim team and on the cheerleading squad—sometimes individually and sometimes as a group. The lessons that I learned there easily apply to the classroom setting. Envision your goal… think about what it will take to reach that goal… plot your course… and then practice your little heart out. When you perform, your performance will be based on the end goal. When you practice, you will be giving yourself the "test" of whether you will be able to make your goal. It is very natural that the more aligned your practice tests are with the end goal, the more successful your final outcome.

Instead of yelling about performance-based measurement systems, perhaps we should take issue with the tests. Perhaps our standards are too low for our students. However, I doubt that our good teachers purposefully teach students below their capabilities. For example, I was instructed to teach my students rigorous content that pushed their performance levels. Though I got conflicting messages that on the one hand urged me to keep the state performance standards in mind, and on the other hand urged me to keep the NAEP standards in mind… both instructions were getting at the same thing. There is a level of performance that we expect from our students and whatever content, skills, character lessons, or life experiences we choose for them should make them more than able to achieve those outcomes.

Perhaps what I am saying is that teaching to the test is only as bad as the expectations that are set for students and for one's own teaching. I want to teach my students to the tests in life. That means I want to instruct them just as much about how to solve arithmetic by different methods just as I want to instruct them how to use deduction and inference to narrow their responses. I don't think that one of these tests is evil while the other is acceptable. I think that both have their place and instead of attacking the practice, perhaps we adults should get into the meat of what we are really fighting about.

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