A hot topic in education today is whether or not teachers should “teach to the test” or if that practice limits students’ education too severely. There are opinions on both sides of the fence, and it’s a subject worth exploring because of its vast repercussions on the skills of the next generation, who will allow us to compete globally in science, education, and entrepreneurship.
According to W. James Popham, “The purpose of most educational testing is to allow teachers, parents, and others to make accurate inferences about the levels of mastery that students have achieved with respect to a body of knowledge … or a set of skills. Because the amount of knowledge and skills that teachers teach is typically too great to test everything, tests sample those bodies of knowledge or skills.”
This type of testing allows teachers and parents to gauge what percentage of a body of knowledge the student possesses. If, however, the teacher drills students specifically on items that will be on the test she hands out, or if she obtains the questions that will be on a state-mandated test in advance and teaches information related only to those questions, we cannot infer how much knowledge those students have actually acquired. This latter form is what is termed “teaching to the test.”
The problem of how to teach is built into our school system. The 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law for the first time caused schools to “be accountable” for student knowledge, meaning they had to focus a great deal of effort on demonstrating proficiency on state standardized testing and results in reading, math, and science. Schools unable to demonstrate that students were making “adequate yearly progress” toward proficiency were subject to federal sanctions; these included loss of federal funds, loss of students through transfers to other schools, and in some cases, a complete restructuring of the school.
While the administered tests showed that students across the country (particularly in the lower grades) made progress in basic skills in reading and math, studies have shown that the improvements don’t necessarily hold up in the higher grades, when critical thinking skills become necessary.
This puts teachers in an awkward position. If their students do not demonstrate proficiency on the state tests, they will be penalized; this encourages them to teach specifically to the tests. But, if they do teach to the test, the students’ learning abilities may be compromised as they reach the higher grades. In addition, critics of the law say that the emphasis on testing in specific subjects means that other subjects, such as social studies and the arts, get short shrift. Some schools have even done away with or cut back on recess time to focus more attention on test-focused academics, despite evidence that recess provides both a necessary break and a means of cognitive processing of the information presented in the classroom.
Clearly there needs to be some sort of balance between standardized testing, which can pinpoint specific deficits in students’ knowledge, and curriculum-based education, where students have more open-ended assessments and are taught not what to learn but how to learn. It is true that students can learn many important skills from standardized tests, such as time management, following directions, and knowing when certain answers can be eliminated. But is it not equally as important to know how to approach learning a subject you’ve never seen before? After all, that is the basic recipe for life. We welcome your comments and opinions in the section below.
 Popham, W. James (March 2001). Teaching to the Test? Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar01/vol58/num06/Teaching-to-the-Test%C2%A2.aspx
 Great Schools Staff. (March 11, 2016). What’s so Bad about Teaching to the Test? Retrieved from www.greatschools.org/qk/articles/teaching-to-the-test/
 Murray, Robert and Catherine Ramstetter (January 2013.) The Crucial Role of Recess in School. Pediatrics Vol. 131 Issue 1. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/131/1/183