Teach to the Test?
Every year, the education magazine Phi Delta Kappan hires the Gallup Organization to survey American opinion on the public schools. Though Gallup conducts the poll, education grandees selected by the editors of the Kappan write the questions. In 2007 the poll asked, “Will the current emphasis on standardized tests encourage teachers to ‘teach to the tests,’ that is, concentrate on teaching their students to pass the tests rather than teaching the subject, or don’t you think it will have this effect?”
The key to the question, of course, is the “rather than”—the assumption by many critics that test preparation and good teaching are mutually exclusive. In their hands, “teach to the test” has become an epithet. The very existence of content standards linked to standardized tests, in this view, narrows the curriculum and restricts the creativity of teachers—which of course it does, in the sense that teachers in standards-based systems cannot organize their instructional time in any fashion they prefer.
A more subtle critique is that teaching to the test can be good or bad. If curricula are carefully developed by educators and the test is written with curricula in mind, then teaching to the test means teaching students the knowledge and skills we agree they ought to learn—exactly what our teachers are legally and ethically obligated to do.
Yet there are two senses in which teaching to the test can indeed be harmful: excessive preparation that focuses more on the format of the test and test-taking techniques than on the subject matter, and the reallocation of classroom time from subjects on which students are not tested (often art and physical education) to those on which they are (often reading and mathematics).
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, for example, implicitly encourages educators to reallocate classroom time, because it requires testing in only reading and math (in seven grades) and science (in three). Researchers have yet to determine exactly what the effects have been in schools, but NCLB has created a clear incentive for educators who are worried about their schools’ performance to cut back on art, music, and history classes while devoting more time to reading, math, and science. (Since science results are not included in the school accountability calculations under NCLB, however, that subject may also get short shrift.)
What about all the time spent on schooling students in the techniques of test taking—how to fill in answer sheet bubbles, whether to guess or not, what to do when time runs short, and so on? This kind of instruction has been known to eat up weeks, even months, of class time during which students study old examinations or practice test-taking skills. It should occupy less than a day. The firms that write today’s standardized tests, such as the Educational Testing Service and CTB/McGraw-Hill, strongly discourage this kind of preparation, correctly arguing that teachers who spend more than a little time familiarizing students with test formats can hurt learning and test performance by neglecting to cover the subject matter itself. (As for the amount of time spent administering the tests, another source of complaints, it is insignificant. The tests required by NCLB, for example, are given once a year and take about an hour each.)
The evidence from commercial firms that offer preparation for college and graduate school entrance tests such as the SAT and GRE is clear on this point. Most companies, including industry behemoth Kaplan Inc., focus on subject-matter review. However, one firm, The Princeton Review, distinguished itself for years by arguing stridently that students need not master such material to do well. For a fee of several hundred dollars, it would teach test-taking techniques that it promised would increase scores. But dozens of academic studies failed to confirm these claims, and after sustained pressure from better-business groups, The Princeton Review agreed last year to pull the ads in which these assertions were made.
Why do so many teachers persist in extensive test preparation? Partly because they have been misled. But there is a deeper and far more troubling reason why this kind of teaching to the test persists: It sometimes works. And it does so for a very bad reason: Repeated drilling on test questions only works when the items match those on the upcoming test. But if those questions are available to teachers, that means test security has been breached. Someone is cheating.
Test security includes measures ranging from taking effective precautions against divulging any but the broadest foreknowledge of the test’s contents to educators and students to guarding against old-fashioned cheating when students take tests. It requires diligence both in proctoring test administration and in maintaining the “integrity” of test materials. For example, for a paper-and-pencil test, materials must be sealed until the moment test taking begins and students—and no one else—open their test booklets. Students should be the ones to close those booklets, too, with the completed answer sheets inside. Recent cheating scandals around the country, however, indicate how easily and frequently integrity is violated.
Unlike in most other industrialized countries, security for many of our state and local tests is loose. We have teachers administering tests in their own classrooms to their own students, principals distributing and collecting test forms in their own schools. Security may be high outside the schoolhouse door, but inside, too much is left to chance. And, as it turns out, educators are as human as the rest of us; some cheat, and not all manage to keep test materials secure, even when they are not intentionally cheating….