29 September 2007

Teaching to the Test

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.


Jim Anderson said...

One of the major fears around "teaching to the test" is that other meaningful and important teaching gets short shrift because it doesn't show up on the state exam.

I'm of your school--a good test is worth teaching to, and worth teaching about. I want students to learn how assessment works in a direct and experiential way. Thus, I teach students how to create their own tests. We talk about the different kinds and purposes of questions, use terms like "distracter," and critically evaluate sample WASL assessments along the way.

The Science Goddess said...

I am definitely in favor of teaching kids how to take tests. Although the older I get, the fewer tests I'm asked to take---I still think that those skills continue to serve me well. I think entry and advancement in many fields involves tests.

Shelli said...

I agree - I teach an AP course and I know that if I teach a quality course as defined by the College Board, the test will take care of itself. I do train the kids throughout the year with tests that emulate the AP exam, exposure to weekly AP problems, etc. I think the problem comes when the test and the objectives are not in good alignment, as is often seen with state assessments.

The Science Goddess said...

That and the kind of repetitive practice that occurs out of context (a/k/a "drill and kill").

I want my kiddos to walk into my classroom on test day thinking that they're going to kick some butt...not that I'm out to flunk them.

Margaret said...

Teaching kids how to take tests, and how to successfully deal with different test formats is critical. Yet I think of my husband who is one of the world's most creative problem solvers, but he is not a good test taker.

TheInfamousJ said...

I'm with you completely. Just as I found it unfair as a student to walk in to a test with no "review sheet" (even if all the review sheet said was that the test was on chapters 4 and 5), I find that judging a teacher's value on their student's performance on a test for which there is no true advanced warning of the content is similarly unfair.

An example, in my state for the biology standards, there is one entitled, "Students shall know the classification and diversity of life." This triggers thoughts of taxonomy. However, the way this standard was tested was to give students a dichotemous key of different annelids and it asks them, based on the description, which species of annelid is the matching one.

It seems awfully specific of a question for such a vague standard. Couldn't the standard at least have mentioned dichotemous keys? (luckily, I decided to teach it)

And don't even get me started on the chemistry standards. "VSEPR" is one of my listed standards. That's a HUGE theory. What, specifically, about the theory would they like the students to know? Otherwise, I fear that my students will have in depth knowledge of some aspect that is not tested.

Mz. Teacher to be said...

You guys are talking about tests in High Schools. What about the tests in Elementary Schools? It seems to me that students are missing out on other subjects, because the teacher is having to focus on the material for the tests. What do you all think?

The Science Goddess said...

It is the same at the elementary level---no matter the grade or the subject area. We teach to the standards and the test will take care of itself.