Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Recently, I was part of a conversation in which a respected high-level educator gave the opinion that standardized tests, had “made better teachers of our teachers.” She was being somewhat ironic, because her context was that she was speaking against No Child Left Behind and its mandated tests. But our setting was such that we were not able to ask her to expound on her opinion, so a number of us were left wondering what she meant.  One of my friends grumbled, “If she means teaching to the test, I know some teachers who would disagree strongly with her.” I, too, am among those who lament the way the current testing emphasis encourages a lockstep, one-size-fits-all approach. (I recently heard a researcher say that schools are teaching civics and government less and less “because they’re not covered in the standardized tests.”) But I wonder if the educator meant something different, more subtle, about testing.

Let me offer a radical proposal: that, properly undertaken, teaching to the test is not a bad idea and actually results in learning.

By teaching to the test, I do not mean a cynical narrowing of focus whereby students are spoon-fed or inappropriately coached with answers, but rather that the subject matter, the teaching methods, and the testing are part of an integrated whole, with the goal of producing learning that lasts.

A test – even a final test – is, at base, a teaching tool. Rather than using the test simply as a bloodless measurement (or as a threat), good teachers, who understand themselves to be allies with their students in the learning quest, incorporate a test as a part of a logical progression that includes thoughtful class presentations, discussion, research, and homework.

One of the most practical and effective ways to use a test as a teaching tool, especially in the upper grades and high school and beyond, is to prepare test questions that serve as a comprehensive review of the material covered, then distribute a study guide developed from those questions (not the answers) and let the students know that this is the exact material from which they will be tested. This is not teaching to the test in the narrow way described above, but a systematic method of basing test preparation on the texts, notes, and research which have been an organic part of the class from the first day. A study guide of 25 questions, 20 of which will be on the test, has a way of concentrating the mind in the review of knowledge.

Another common-sense way to combine teaching and testing for the sake of learning is retesting. If learning the material is the goal, retesting is one of the most effective resources available to a teacher to assist students in reaching that goal. In life it’s called “learning from one’s mistakes.” (Of course if the goal is simply to measure rather than teach, retesting is a waste of time.) A math teacher once told me, with some frustration, that he believes in retesting as a teaching tool, but he doesn’t use it anymore because it takes too much time. This is an understandable frustration, but it also begs the question: If it will help students learn (not just improve their scores), shouldn’t our classes and curricula be designed to make such time available?

These ideas are part of what is sometimes known as teaching for mastery. “Mastery” is what education has always been about. As a matter of vocation, a good teacher wants her students to learn (that is, master) the material. So she will devise teaching (and testing) strategies to make this happen. The goal is the education of students, not just “covering the material.”

Some people instinctively distrust these concepts because of a vague sense that learning should be a sort of Darwinian competition and that any approach that assists a student in achieving real success is somehow not right. Those who do well (usually without much help) continue to rise to the top, those who do poorly continue to sink to the bottom, and the class moves on.

But educators devoted to teaching have always used a mastery approach to make sure that the goal of the lesson is clear and attainable, that the test accurately reflects what is taught, and that a student has some opportunity to enhance learning by reflecting on errors. Responsible teaching and testing is a way for teacher and student to participate in a sort of covenant based on the notion that what is being taught is actually worth learning and not just covering.

Once, in a casual conversation with a medical school dean, I said, “I suppose you use that first year to weed out as many students as you can.” He replied, “We have so much invested in those students we do everything we can to hang on to them.” I stood corrected, and learned an admirable philosophy for any school or teacher, at any level.


Here's a link to a New York Times article on this topic.

This post is adapted from an essay first published as an opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune


Jeffrey Dean said...

Your comments are consistent with a recent NY Times article (1/20/11 by Pam Belluck)that says that the act of taking a test "is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques."

Caryl said...

Bravo! Everyone involved in education should read this blog. Before I retired, we had begun implementing RTI (response to intervention) to assist students in achieving continuous reading improvement through use of differentiated instructional groups. "Good" teachers are always on the lookout for better strategies to use to enhance their teaching and their students' learning. They are also encouraged to use the student data collected to inform their overall teaching, not to just teach to the test. Maybe in retirement you could take this "message" on the road, and my job would be to keep you supplied with coffee and goodies!

Richard Jorgensen said...

Thanks, Jeff. I've edited the post and placed a link to that article at the end.