Teaching to the RIGHT Test

Mar 13, 2014 | by Janice Smith


The debate about the idea of ‘teaching to the test’ has been around ever since George W’s No Child Left Behind first instituted standardized testing back in 2001.  It wasn’t until I entered the world of education that I was presented with the other side of the debate.  In fact, prior to that I’m not sure I even knew it was a debate.  I just thought everybody was opposed to the idea of ‘teaching to the test’.

Then I began to learn about the North Carolina Standard Course of Study (now the Common Core State Standards), the importance of beginning the year with the end goal in mind, and the necessity of measuring students against these standards both along the way (to help me understand how close they were), and ultimately at the end of the year to hold us both accountable for doing what we were there to do (me to teach, and them to learn).

It was then, and later when I went back to school for my Masters in Curriculum Design & Instructional Coaching, that I suddenly became confused by the debate. Wasn’t this really more of a misunderstanding?  After all, every text I’ve ever read by any expert on designing curriculum agrees there needs to be an assessment, which should be designed before you begin teaching, not after.  This ultimately leaves us teaching students the standards that matter, which also happen to be the ones on the test.  Isn’t this a good thing?  A prioritization, if you will?  While we’re spending all our energy opposing the idea of ‘teaching to the test’, perhaps I’m suggesting that instead we shift the conversation and start talking about teaching to the RIGHT tests.  

So this past month, when doing a round of interviews with school leaders and exceptional teachers, I decided to throw this question into the mix and see what they thought.

Here Brett Noble, an 11th grade English teacher from KIPP Gaston College Preparatory, highlights the first key point in why ‘teaching to the test’ is not actually the problem.  If we want students to reach an ambitious goal by the end of the year, we must first identify what that goal is, and what success looks like.  We do this by creating the assessment that will measure their success FIRST.

He makes a second point here that I think is less often discussed, and that is the idea of how we respect our time in class.  We only have a certain amount each day (somewhere between 50-80 minutes), which is never enough.  Knowing exactly how we need to spend that time to reach those ambitious goals is crucial to help us make the most of every minute (and avoid those activities, questions and moments that are not maximizing that time).  Having an end assessment in mind before we begin the year, the week or the day, we know exactly what content matters most to that end goal, and where we should be spending our time.  By giving formative assessments along the way (quizzes, exit tickets, unit assessments), aligned to the same test you know they will receive at the end of the year, provides you with crucial data that benchmarks their progress and helps you strategize the best uses of your time.  Teaching to the test?  Absolutely.  But if we can all agree that the standards are rigorous and relevant to student success in college and life, then why not teach to it?

But in order for these statements to be true, both the end assessment and the formative assessments must clearly measure student mastery of the standards we are holding students, and ourselves, accountable to.  So creating high quality assessments, directly aligned to these standards, is important in being able to gauge where students are at all points on this ‘road trip’ towards the final destination.  Here Eric Sanchez, Co-Founder and School Leader of Henderson Collegiate, discusses how they do that at his school.

Many might argue that this kind of teaching, involving high-stakes tests at the end of the year, and regular standards based assessments throughout the year, does not appeal to students.  We often hear cries of ‘over testing’ and the dreary culture this has built for students.  Yet here Eric makes the point that students actually thrive in this kind of environment.  It takes the mystery out of learning and grades, and empowers them to own their own learning.  When they can speak to exactly what skills they’re kicking butt at, and which they haven’t mastered yet, THEY are in control of their learning.  It isn’t left up to just their teachers.

And to refer back to what Brett mentioned earlier, it also allows students to GPS their own progress towards that ambitious end goal that was identified at the beginning of the year.  The end of the road trip, if you will.  How frustrated would you be riding in a car, headed to an unknown destination, with no idea of where you are along the way?  That’s probably how some of our students are feeling, or have felt in the past.  They enter school each day not knowing exactly where they’re headed, why they’re learning what they are, and how close they are to where they need to be.  With standards-aligned assessments comes transparency.  With transparency comes empowerment.

So how does all of this tie into the testing culture we so often hear people complaining about?  Well, I don’t think that most people vocally opposing ‘teaching to the test’ would actually be opposed to this kind of testing culture.  Perhaps I’m misguided, and giving too much credit that this is a big misunderstanding as opposed to philosophical disagreement.  However, I have come to conclude that we are simply having the wrong conversation.

We are spending our time arguing about the idea of ‘teaching to the test’ rather than the real problem which is making sure we’re teaching to the RIGHT test.  If the test is a good one, then of course we should teach to it.

Let’s not remove accountability and measurement (of both students and ourselves as teachers), and instead ensure we are measuring the right things.  Let’s spend more time and energy analyzing the current assessments, and finding the best ways to improve them so they assess our standards in a rigorous authentic way, and less time talking about getting rid of all tests.  Thanks to Keith Starr, Assistant Principal of KIPP Pride High School, for closing with his thoughts.




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