Most of the problems with testing have one surprising source: Cheating by school administrators and teachers
Every year, the education magazine Phi Delta Kappanhires 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.)