Teaching to the test

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

"Teaching to the test" is a colloquial term for any method of education whose curriculum is heavily focused on preparing students for a standardized test.

Opponents of this practice argue that it forces teachers to limit curriculum to a set range of knowledge or skills in order to increase student performance on the mandated test. This produces an unhealthy focus on excessive repetition of simple, isolated skills ("drill and kill") and limits the teacher's ability to focus on a holistic understanding of the subject matter. This would be an incidence of Campbell's law, the general principle that a social indicator distorts the process it is intended to monitor.[1] Furthermore, opponents argue, teachers who engage in it are typically below-average teachers.[2] Some research suggests that teaching to the test is ineffective and often does not achieve its primary goal of raising student scores.[2]


Teaching to the test is teaching information and then giving a test over the information at the end of the unit. It is also frequently used for skill-based learning, like typing or athletics; in this context, teaching to the test is the dominant practice.[3] For one reason, teaching to the test misrepresents how much students really have learned about a topic. In an example, students who have learned vocabulary words for a portion of the reading test will score well even though they have not developed a broad vocabulary. In mathematics, students who have been drilled on only test like questions do not have the opportunity to master a particular skill or concept and often can not correctly answer questions that assess the same skill or concept in a different way. According to Craig Jerald, one study has shown that a district has relied heavily on an item drilling, 83 percent of students selected the correct answer to a multiple choice item as "87 - 24 =." However, only 66 percent could provide the correct answer to the open ended item "Subtract 24 from 87."[4]


Teaching to the test is frequently criticized by academics and educators. Critics of the practice argue that students who are taught to the test lack a comprehensive and lasting understanding of subject matter; even if it raises test scores – which it fails to do[2] – students may not truly grasp the key concepts of the domain,[5] because teaching to the test centers on rote memorization while excluding the strengthening of creative skills and abstract-thinking ability. Teachers who want to raise test scores, contrarily, must promote deep conceptual understanding of the subject matter.[2] According to Richard D. Kahlenber’s article, both teachers and students spend most of their time studying the textbook concepts to prepare for exams. In actuality, though, students need morality, aesthetic, and life skills, and (depending on the student's ambitions) creativity, for future success. According to critics, educational systems that center on standardized tests do not truly educate students or provide them with the ability to fulfill the needs of their future lives.[6]

The practice has also been shown to reduce the validity of standardized tests, and can create an incorrect profile of a student's achievement.[5] Dr. Louis Volante, an associate professor at Brock University, observed that test scores are, for many reasons, not necessarily a fair indicator of a student’s ability. Some students who master class materials through homework or study may not succeed in testing environments due to a lack of test-taking skills.[7]

On the other side, a WNBC-TV senior correspondent named Gabe Pressman expressed that benchmarks for the standardized tests sometimes can be affected by political pressure. In many cases test scores are dumbed down to achieve the forecasted figure; as a result, improvement in standardized tests result does not always represent students’ real levels of skill.[8]

W. James Popham, an emeritus professor at University of California Graduate School of Education Studies, also claimed that standardized tests are not a fair game to students with different backgrounds. The high-stake exam would be a larger challenge to international students, who probably have had different class materials and learning methods. If the teaching to the test still exists in U.S. education system, the drop rates of new immigrants are likely to be high.[9]


Because of its shortcomings, the practice of teaching to the test is often considered unethical. A 1989 study on teaching to the test evaluated the ethical "continuum" of the practice, and identified seven practice points, ranging from most to least ethical:[10]

  1. General instruction on local objectives
  2. Instruction on general test-taking skills
  3. Instruction on objectives generally measured by standardized tests
  4. Instruction on objectives specific to the test used
  5. Instruction on objectives specific to the test used and using the same format
  6. Instruction using a released test or a "clone" test that replicates the format and content of the test used
  7. Instruction using the test to be used, either before or during test administration

The study concluded that the ethical boundary fell between points three and five, with points one and two being ethical and points six and seven being unethical.[10]

In practice[edit]

The federal No Child Left Behind Act in the United States has increased the practice of teaching to the test because of its emphasis on standardized test scores; this is especially true in schools with disadvantaged students, which rely heavily on government funding.[5] Test-preparation courses and cram schools are limited examples of teaching to the test.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vasquez Heilig, Julian; Nichols, Sharon L. (2013-08-21). "A Quandary for School Leaders: Equity, High-stakes Testing and Accountability". In Tillman, Linda C.; Scheurich, James Joseph. The Handbook of Research on Educational Leadership for Equity and Diversity. Routledge. p. 422. ISBN 9781135128432. Retrieved 22 July 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measuring Effective Teaching Program". Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. December 2010. Lay summary – Felch, Jason (11 December 2012). "Study Backs 'Value-Added' Analysis of Teacher Effectiveness – Classroom Effectiveness Can Be Reliably Estimated by Gauging Students' Progress on Standardized Tests, Gates Foundation Study Shows – Results Come Amid a National Effort To Reform Teacher Evaluations". Los Angeles Times.. Retrieved 20 February 2012.. 
  3. ^ Bond, Lloyd. "Teaching to the Test". Carnegie Perspectives (via the University of Victoria). Retrieved 18 September 2010. 
  4. ^ Jerald, Craig. "Teach to the Test? Just Say No". Reading Rockets. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c Volante, Louis (September 2004). "Teaching to the Test: What Every Educator and Policy-Maker Should Know". Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy (35). Retrieved 18 September 2010. 
  6. ^ Kahlenber, Richard (3 August 2009). "The Problem for Low-Income Students". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 April 2012. 
  7. ^ Volante, Louis (25 September 2004). "Teaching To the Test: What Every Educator and Policy-maker Should Know". CJEAP. Retrieved 21 April 2012. 
  8. ^ Pressman, Gabe (31 March 2010). "Teaching to the Test and Charter Schools Won't Help Kids: Expert". NBC New York. Retrieved 21 April 2012. 
  9. ^ Popham, James (March 1999). "Why Standardized Tests Don't Measure Educational Quality". Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Retrieved 21 April 2012. 
  10. ^ a b Mehrens, W.A.; Kaminski, J (1989). "Methods for Improving Standardized Test Scores: Fruitful, Fruitless or Fraudulent?". Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice 8 (1): 14–22. 

Further reading[edit]