I Teach to the Test

My state has an End-of-Course test, our district has semester tests, and my Algebra team has common quizzes.  I teach to those assessments.  Occasionally I notice a “bad question,” but I know all the students will get the same “bad question” and have a measure of faith that it will come out in the wash. In my early years of teaching, I had enough respect for my well-seasoned colleagues who created the tests to believe what they had created incorporated elements from a broader picture than what I understood.  As I developed experience, grew through National Board Certification, and became more of a research-based practitioner, I got involved in writing local curriculum and tests.  “To whom much is given, much will be required” from the ancient manuscripts confers a reasonable responsibility to work for positive change as one achieves knowledge.

The process of curriculum and test design in my district is civil and well-informed but, undoubtedly, not all agree with the final products.  For the most part, however, it seems the loudest disagreement tends to come to those who do not become involved or make suggestions until the work is finished.  I suspect my situation is more the norm than the exception.

Maybe is is different for other subjects, but math builds in such a way that if I were to dig in my heals and teach to something besides the assessments, my students would be disadvantaged in the long run.  The only time I have felt the test diminished any creativity in my classroom was when the curriculum was too dense and I was thereby forced to cram in too much information.  Then there was no time to try strategies that would be more interesting for the students, if they would also be more time consuming.  Common Core has fixed that problem for the topics I teach by keeping the topics within a reasonable spread.

Without specific assessed goals, teachers who may value presentation creativity or personal passion over substance can be side-tracked, thus depriving their students of important content.  I believe most teachers mean well, but many have affinities toward topics that would best be explored in a different venue.  Tests hold the teachers accountable.  US teaching positions are generally time-intensive and stressful.  Often teachers do not have time to read about trends in their profession, and  professional development can be lacking. Many math teachers in those positions continue to believe, for example, they are helping their students by teaching them quick tricks that avoid having to learn challenging math concepts.  Standardized tests can hold those teacher accountable by presenting questions designed to distinguish between students who have memorized steps and those who understand them.  Without such tests, teachers continue to believe that the need to teach students to understand math is a matter of opinion.

Along with Common Core aligned testing comes the push to teach students to solve problems.  To meet the standards, teachers are having to let go of lecture only and embrace student-centered interactions.  Some might say that being pushed to lecture less is stifles creativity but with today’s tech-savvy students, it is hard to defend daily lectures as a best practice.  Many teachers will refuse to try new strategies until they are evaluated on student engagement.  If one considers their evaluation to be a type of “test,” then job security may depend upon teaching toward that test as well.

As long as the tests are good, then it is for the students’ best interest that we teach to the tests.  If the tests are not good and we are in a position to judge, we should also be seeking to effect appropriate change.

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