February 27, 2006


What's wrong with 'teaching to the test'?: Standarized tests simply mean we are setting high standards for our students. (Jay Mathews, 2/27/06, CS Monitor)

Teaching to the test, you may have heard, is bad, very bad. I got 59.2 million hits when I did a Google search for the phrase, and most of what I read was unfriendly. Teaching to the test made children sick, one article said. Others said it rendered test scores meaningless or had a dumbing effect on instruction. All of that confused me, since in 23 years of visiting classrooms I have yet to see any teacher preparing kids for exams in ways that were not careful, sensible, and likely to produce more learning. [...]

Yet if you asked the thousands of educators who have written the questions for the state tests that allegedly produce all these terrible classroom practices, they would tell you their objective is the same as the classroom teacher's: to help kids learn. And if you watched the best teachers at work, as I have many times, you would see them treating the state test as nothing more than another useful guide and motivator, with no significant change in the way they present their lessons.

You can understand education professionals being upset, because it takes the curriculum away from them and gives it back to the taxpayers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2006 8:19 AM

I've always assumed that they were upset at the prospect of being accountable in a measurable way.

Posted by: Rick T. at February 27, 2006 9:00 AM

Teaching the test is fine, provided that the test doesn't suck. For example, the whole point of AP Classes is to teach the test, but then AP Tests are the best written standardized tests out there. But the SAT and most tests of its ilk are poorly written and measure very little apart from one's ability to take the SAT....and the test can be gamed. In fact, my job is basically teaching strategies for these types of tests to those who can afford it.
So, while I agree that teaching the test isn't necessarily a bad thing, first someone has to write a decent test. Something on the British A-level/O-level system, maybe.


Posted by: Noel at February 27, 2006 9:24 AM

If our worst educational problem is that kids are doing well on the SATs but don't know some other stuff we'll be doing okay.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2006 9:32 AM

If memory serves, the SAT has also been "dumbed down" (the call it 're-norming') twice in the last 30 years. So when they point to the SAT scores being slightly better than flat, they are really on a downward slope.

You also have to take into account who is taking them. If you had a series of tests from the 1950s that were given at the end of school year, used them as a benchmark, and gave them to EVERY child in the US over time, we would have seen a long slow, decline that fell off the cliff around 1982-3.

That is when the Education Establishment took the push for reform, co-opted it, and cemented the worst curricula in the world into place.

They are working the same magic on NCLB. Toss the whole thing. Vouchers aren't an "option," they are, in fact, the only rational answer.

A 2001 OECD study found that “America is now dead last amongst 18 nations in literacy levels, with staggeringly high levels of illiteracy threatening to make the US incapable of competing in the knowledge-based economy of the future.

Testing by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows 59% of American high school graduates between the ages of 16 and 25 are functionally illiterate, incapable of coping adequately with the complex demands of everyday life. That number is 18% worse than the country with the next lowest level of literacy -- Poland, which rings in at 50%.

Ironically, in a comparison of people aged 50 to 54, the United States came in first in literacy education levels. Amongst 30 to 34-year-olds the US is tied for second. That number falls to fifth place for people aged 25 to 29.”

Posted by: Bruno at February 27, 2006 10:15 AM


To the contrary, SATs scores have fallen because more kids take them. If you gave the test as widely in the 50s the scores would be disastrous.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2006 10:20 AM

"Testing by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows 59% of American high school graduates between the ages of 16 and 25 are functionally illiterate, incapable of coping adequately with the complex demands of everyday life."

That's got to be one of the most absurd statements I've ever heard in my life. 90%+ of Americans are more than capable of "coping adequately with the complex demands of everyday life" and anyone who would honestly believe otherwise either lacks any semblance of critical thinking skills (i.e., cannot immediately reject such a claim as being utterly at odds with their everyday experiences dealing with others), or lives in a cave.

Posted by: b at February 27, 2006 11:31 AM

Actually, the SAT is a reasonable test for what it purports to measure. It's just that most people don't understand what it claims to measure, and therefore overstate it's measurement ability. An interesting discussion of the SAT can be found here.

Posted by: TimF at February 27, 2006 1:12 PM


Posted by: oj at February 27, 2006 3:59 PM

I don't understand the "teaching to test" discussion. We teach to test in everything. Kids are taught English, not gibberish, because English is the test for navigating life in the U.S. Arithmetic facts are taught because that's how the numbers add up, so to speak.

If teachers are objecting to teaching to tests, what are they teaching to instead?

Posted by: erp at February 27, 2006 4:47 PM

I've asked erp's question 100 times. Every time I find out that there's something important that kids aren't learning (like George Washington's farewell to the troops or the arguments over our form of government or the reasons we had the Civil War), I'm always told it is because teachers don't have time to teach those things because they are "teaching to the test." My experience is that the teachers spend an enormous amount of time guilting and pressuring the students about eating breakfast and getting enough sleep. Why not spend that time talking about important things?

Posted by: sharon at February 27, 2006 8:18 PM