Teaching to the Test, or the Other Way Around?

  • Posted on: 22 November 2013
  • By: Tina McCoy

I sometimes hear people say, "We shouldn't be teaching to the test!".  I think that's an interesting comment in many ways. Teaching to the test is simply poor teaching. No quality educator would advocate for superficial learning simply so that students can take another test. That's not real learning - not the kind that we should want for our students. Does that mean that I don't believe that we should be teaching those things that are 'on the test'?  Not at all.  Let me explain.

Those who say we shouldn't teach to the the test seem to have a skewed understanding of educational priorities. Somehow, their thinking is out of order. First, comes the curriculum.  The curriculum, simply stated, is a record of what is most important for our students to learn at given points in their educational careers.  The importance of curriculum is often, albeit inadvertently, understated.  What we should teach is the foundation of our work.  In a country that values education for all students, consistency of opportunity starts with the curriculum. What to teach is the first thing that every good teacher should consider.  Then comes the instruction part; what most people call teaching.  The curriculum, without great teachers to bring it to life, does nothing.  The curriculum is inert and lifeless.  It can sit there 'on a shelf' forever and never be of any use to anyone until a teacher makes it real for students.  The teacher-driven interaction between the students and the curriculum is what promotes learning - the desired outcome and goal of education.  

But if we stop there, a major piece of the equation is missing.  How will be know if we are successful in teaching what we determined was important for all students? The 'test' is not an end in itself.  Test results have no utility whatsoever unless we use them to inform  our efforts to continually improve how we serve our students. Why would we not want to know whether or not we are achieving our goals?  It is essential for us to know that what we are doing is working.  It is critical for us to know what is not working.  We also need to know what to emphasize more as we educate students at every level.  Achievement tests, even despite limitations, are the best mechanism we have to evaluate how we are doing as we strive to improve the services we provide to our students.  If teachers feel like they are teaching to the test, there is a good chance that there is a lack of alignment between curriculum, instruction and assessment. 

I recently discovered a quote that is relevant to the issues of state testing and teaching to the test. “To create more positive results in your life, replace ‘if only’ with ‘next time’” (Unknown).  Test results can inform us what to do  next time - not because we did it wrong yesterday, but because we can to it better tomorrow.

The next time someone mentions teaching to the test, tell them "We're not teaching to the test, we're testing what we teach". Our students deserve nothing less.