TOPICS : Good teachers teach to the test

I have a confession to make. For the entire 28 years that I taught high school English, I taught to the test. And I’m proud to finally admit it. I know that fessing up to this perceived transgression will reflexively draw clamour from everyone with children in school. That’s because teaching to the test is considered tantamount to cheating on your income tax returns. But stay with me here: This type of reaction is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of both curriculum and instruction.

If we’re being honest, teaching to the test is done by almost all other effective teachers. In fact, I did so — along with many other effective educators — way before teachers were evaluated on the basis of their students’ ability to perform on the standardised tests that now constitute the sine qua non of accountability. That’s because it is eminently sound pedagogy.

There is a distinct difference between teaching to the broad body of skills and knowledge that a test represents (good), and teaching to the exact items that will appear on the standardised test (indefensible and illegal).

Teaching students how to answer a particular set of items that appears on a test shortchanges them ethically and educationally. The confusing part arises when we fail to make that distinction.

Let me be more concrete. If one of the goals of an English course is for students to gain the ability to write a persuasive essay that contains a thesis statement supported by evidence, then it behoves the teacher to provide students with practice writing persuasive essays that contain both. Practice is accompanied by critique from the teacher. It’s the feedback from the teacher that lets students know if they’re on the right track to mastering the required skills. Technically, this is teaching to the test, but because students do not know beforehand what question they will ultimately be asked, it is instructionally defensible, helpful, and educational.

The distinction is crucial in today’s debate over the method used to identify effective teachers because it also calls into question another widely misunderstood concept — the curriculum. In an attempt to help schools provide a quality education, reformers mistakenly believe that covering as much material as possible is the way to go. But this approach is counterproductive. It overloads teachers by designing a curriculum that emphasises breadth over depth.

The result is that teachers are given far too many targets to aim at in their lessons. These extensive lists of high-blown objectives certainly look impressive on paper, but they cannot realistically be addressed by teachers in their day-to-day instructional decisions.

In light of the demands of the accountability movement, teaching to the test is an issue that needs to be fully understood. So the next time you hear that your child’s teacher is “teaching to the test,” think about this: The teacher may well be engaging in perfectly solid instruction. — The Christian Science Monitor