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Jay on the Web: A Teacher on Teaching to the Test

Writing on the web site When Falls the Coliseum, Jason Sterlace, a teacher, has an interesting take on an old Jay Mathews' column looking at the debate among educators over whether to teach a few subjects in-depth or cover a range of topics.

One of the (probably) unintended side effects to standardized testing is that teachers get together to parse the numbers and figure out what they can afford to skip over in our subjects. Standardized tests become predictable to some degree, enough that teachers can figure out which chapters are valued and which ones are not. In fact, that’s the whole point—make sure that every teacher knows what chapters are considered the most important. Make sure they know to cover those topics well.
I don’t think the people who create the standards expected teachers to completely skip those topics that aren’t emphasized on the test, but that’s what happens. The fact is that if you can get your students to score well on the couple of topics that are most heavily assessed, then they’ll pass the standardized test–especially when the tests are graded on a sliding scale. Whether they meant to do it or not, they’re generating an atmosphere that promotes depth over breadth.
As Matthews notes in his article, the College Board’s Advanced Placement program is looking to embrace greater course depth at the expense of breadth. It may be more of a trend in high schools, and as a high school teacher I am cautiously optimistic. (I think it is arguably less appropriate for younger and younger students.) We must realize that it is precisely in these deeper waters that we run into the sink-or-swim situation. It benefits and stimulates our best students, but our worst students need another option… or else, we will need to accept that some students simply will fail.

By Washington Post Editors  | August 6, 2009; 12:17 PM ET
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Make the results of a test score determine the employment, the pay, the future of a classroom teacher or school, and you bet they will "teach to the test". The whole idea of these standardized achievement tests is wrong. They do not account for children with learning disabilities, children coming from awful home environments, children for whom English is a second language, who may not know *any* English at all. These are not the fault of a classroom teacher nor even a school. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that schools and classrooms in poverty struck areas, with cheap housing and even cheaper jobs, where immigrants live, where there isn't enough money in the home for food and clothing or decent medical care, have the lowest test scores.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | August 6, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

The truth is standardized tests aren't a bad thing. The problem is that an excessive reliance on content-based standards as opposed to skills-based standards forces teachers to drill random trivia into the student's heads as opposed to skills that the students will actually need going forward. This summer I had the opportunity to observe history classes in Australian high schools and one of the things that struck me was their insistence on teaching skills primarily and only teaching content to the extent necessary for the students to master the skills. For example, I observed an 11th grade "Modern History" course (which is part of a two year "Modern History" sequence) where the spent one quarter on the Reign of Terror in France (by analyzing documentary evidence for point of view and motivations, comparing secondary sources to get a sense of competing historigraphic schools, getting a sense for why it succeeded/failed). Then in the next quarter the students had to individually identify a 20th century figure and, in essence, do the same thing with that person and his/her historical context. At the end of the two year sequence they must take a standardized exam (with no multiple choice questions) that is designed to primarily test their skills. Because we are so content driven in the American public schools due to the nature of our exams (AP included), you simply can't take the time to these kinds of things in that level of depth.

Posted by: Rob63 | August 6, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

It's true that many school districts have become obsessed with "teaching to the test".
In our area, school district officials are attempting to micromanage curriculum delivery in the classroom -- telling the teachers what topics to cover, how much time to spend on each topic, and in what order to cover them, all in an effort to emphasize content that will appear on state-mandated standardized tests while eliminating or de-emphasizing equally valid content that is not included on these exams, even though these topics are among those listed in state content standards.

Posted by: labman57 | August 6, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

As long as education is standardized, it will fail its most basic mission, which is to prepare oncoming generations for adult life. Only when our goal is to educate each child to the best of his or her abilities will we be helping them enter adulthood. I wish we would ditch testing, and teachers would devote themselves to encouraging the varying gifts in each child.

Posted by: rwheeler1 | August 6, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

What is most frustrating from a teachers perspective is the assumption that the teacher has the flexibility to "teach to the test". These days curriculums are designed on the school district level and teachers have little freedom to be creative and teach anything other than what is being demanded by the district. Students scores really don't have much effect on teacher compensation (nor should they). Reality is the "best" teachers choose to teach the lower scoring kids and there is not much competition for their jobs. The best correlations to determine test scores are family income and parents level of education. So teacher pay should be directly correlated to those factors. Trust the principals to select the best available (that's there job).

Posted by: riktiktik1 | August 6, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

When the goal for the school district is higher scores on standardized tests it has become impossible to tell if the teachers and students are learning more in general, or just getting better at teaching, and taking, those tests because there is no other measurement to use as a gauge.

Posted by: Heerman532 | August 6, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

But again that goes back to the fact that these tests guage students content knowledge and not their skill mastery for the most part. The truth is they are learning; the problem is that what they are learning is of little value in the outside world. Does everyone in the United States need to know Ray LaHood is Secretary of Transportation? No. Does everyone need to know how to find out that information in the event they did need to know it? Yes

Posted by: Rob63 | August 6, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Jeez, just teach them SOMETHING. Please. ANYTHING. I work for a literacy program and I tutor a 49 year old man. Two years ago, my student was voted "Student of the Year" in my program. He received his award on the auditorium stage of the school that graduated him back in the late 70s.

Gotta love a school system like that, eh?

Posted by: Beeper812 | August 6, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Robb63, actually the tests assess both skills and content. You cannot score well on a reading comprehension test if you don't have the vocabulary and content knowledge of the domain of a reading selection. Unfortunately, many teachers spend too much time teaching skills and do not devote enough time to introducing rich content.

Posted by: Nemessis | August 6, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

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