What is “teaching to the test” and is it bad?

Years ago in a professional setting, a respected educator asked a group of teachers a simple question: “What do you teach?”  The group of skeptical middle school educators answered with different responses that varied from subjects to grades.  At the end of the process, the facilitator reminded us that none of the things we mentioned, science or seventh grade, were important and that everyone in the room actually taught children.  “Teaching to the test” is a statement that has many flaws, the largest being that the phrase itself de-emphasizes the most important part of education: students.

The statement “teaching to the test” is assuming that these (or any) tests are not an accurate judge of what a student knows or is able to do. Many of these statements are made by those who have not seen the tests in their entirety since the vast majority of questions from these secured materials have not been released since the implementation of the new testing system in New York State.  The tests are difficult, but in my opinion that has to do more with the length of examinations and less with the content.  The tests are an excellent judge of critical thinking skills and the only objection I would have is the idea that this type of thinking has a time limit.  With minor changes to the timing of exams, I find it hard to argue that the tests are not an accurate assessment of where our students should be.

As a parent, I want my child to be able to engage with Dahl, Alcott, London, and Verne during their years in school and the tests have asked them to do so.  Early in my career, students were reading an incredible amount of poorly written “test stories.,”  These stories, mass-produced along with several questions, were similar to seeing a script for a movie with twelve writers.  The style and craft that we emphasize was gone and often contained questions that could be answered correctly without comprehending the gist of each text.  It would be hard to argue, as a parent, that the need for excerpts from established authors is a bad thing for students.

The biggest misconception in my mind is that teaching to the test is a new phenomenon.  Since the inception of the high-stakes assessment, schools have been trying to prepare students for the exam.  One of my first experiences as a young teacher was sitting in a staff meeting discussing the different test preparation strategies to use from September  onward so that students would be prepared.  Teaching is a difficult job and creating lesson plans is the most difficult part.  Beginning your unit with the idea of what an assessment looks like is considered distinguished planning on each of the many accepted teacher evaluation rubrics.  Inside the education community, and more specifically at Inwood Academy, teachers are celebrated when they have planned backwards from any assessment, including those created collaboratively or adapted from the state.  The assumption that preparing for the test is limiting creativity is fiction; the problem is the new testing is harder to prepare for and the techniques developed to beat the old testing system are no longer applicable.

One of the reasons for celebrating the charter movement is the decision to provide freedom to educators and school administration to plan within the testing system of state exams.  At IAL, the state testing questions are often the floor and not the ceiling for our planning.  Teachers consistently deliver lessons that challenge students to think, understand, justify, and struggle.  Data from larger assessments are used as a teaching tool and not a punishment.  Oftentimes, teachers desire the comfort of knowing how their students are being assessed before planning a rigorous lesson.  The demands of the Common Core and the New York State Tests do not limit creativity, they increase accountability.  Accountability and creativity are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, the most creative teachers thrive in the world of accountability because they have a clear structure.

We live in an age where information is shared faster than ever before.  As a principal, I speak with students everyday about sharing their every feeling on Facebook, Instagram, or any other internet-based outlet.  My caution to them is that oftentimes one comment can incite the actions and opinions of others by providing limited or incomplete information.  I wish adults would be mindful of the same issues caused with their use of social media.

My wife shares posts with me on a daily basis about my profession and it saddens me.  As educators, we are letting the conversation of lesson craft become public without properly informing those partaking in the discussion.  Teaching is the hardest job in the world.  To plan, deliver, and assess a lesson to a group of children at any level is extremely difficult and the amount of effort, skill, compassion, and grit it takes to do it well once is extraordinary, let alone the four or five times my teachers are asked to do it each day.  My fear is that we lose sight of the students in this process.

Whether the end goal is the tests, Common Core standards, older state standards, or the table of contents in an old textbook, I wish the conversation would migrate from how impossible it is to teach to something more productive, like the stories of successful teachers within the system.  Many people are generating interest, building critical thinking skills, and preparing for the test every single day in New York State. Let’s share their successes as often as the failures of systems to adapt.  That way we can reassure those working within the systems of accountability that it can be done well.

This is not simply something I believe in theory. This is something I watch in practice everyday at Inwood Academy.

By Ryan McCabe, Middle School Principal

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