I have a love-hate relationship with the phrase "teaching to the test." On one hand, I don't see a problem. If I'm teaching kids things which are different from what they will be tested on, what the heck am I doing? Shouldn't I be using class time to help kids learn the concepts I expect them to know when we get to the test?
It's the use of the phrase within the context of state-level exams that gets my goat. I can't speak for other states, but here in Washington, we don't know what's going to be on the test from year to year. We can only "teach to the standards," meaning that we help kids learn all the concepts...knowing that they won't be asked to demonstrate mastery of every single one. Teaching to the test gets a bad rap much of the time in this case. It conjures up visions of "drill and kill" in the classroom---something which can and does happen, but not in my classroom. When I work with kids on their expository writing skills (they are in love with But-Man this year), I am teaching to the test, in a sense. When they take the science WASL, they will need to be able write a thorough scientific conclusion. They aren't marked on their writing skills (there is a writing test for that), but the ideas they communicate. The "trick" is to help kids learn what information is important in a conclusion. This is the standard. Yes, I'm training them to demonstrate something for a test, but it is not drilled into them over and over out of context.
My students are about to take the first test of the year in my class. I use various summative forms of assessment---exams are just one piece of the puzzle. Several years ago, I started making my tests resemble the format kids would see on the science WASL. There is a scenario, consisting of a few sentences; a diagram or picture which relates to the scenario; and then some multiple-choice, short answer, and or extended response items which ask kids to use their knowledge within the context of the scenario. Am I "teaching to the test" by using this format? I suppose I am; however, I think it's unfair to expect students to be successful with the state test if the format is completely alien to them.
In the grand scheme of things, I am still learning (after 16+ years in the classroom) how to design good tests. The ones which come with the ancillary materials are often poor in quality---either because of the cognitive demand (only knowledge and basic comprehension questions) or because the items don't target the most important concepts. In building tests, I am getting better at organizing the items in terms of difficulty, balancing the points among selected response and short answer (to avoid gender bias), and targeting higher levels of thinking. I'm not just teaching to the test anymore---I'm using the test to teach me how to better prepare my kids.