Should teachers teach to the test? Some say of course we should, in order to give students the best chance for achieve their highest potential score. Some have even made teaching to the test a lucrative business. Schools are sacrificing more and more instructional time to test prep. Others say that teaching to the test games the outcome in favor of some students without actually reflecting the acquisition of real knowledge or achievement. Who is correct?
First, we must be careful to distinguish between tests teachers write covering material they themselves taught, and standardized tests. Standardized test are not written by the teacher who is teaching the material, and indeed, it is considered cheating if teachers see the questions ahead of time. Teacher-written tests cover a specific subset of content. The purpose of the test is to evaluate the students’ learning of that specific knowledge. Theoretically, if everyone in the class masters the material, everyone can potentially score 100%. Practically, teachers try to have a mix of harder and easier questions in order to differentiate levels of mastery. However, there should not be any questions outside the subset domain.
Standardized tests are very different. Test designers try to ensure that half the students will score above the target median and half below. From the students’ point of view, they perceive right away that it feels like they do not know half the questions. The realization often makes them feel inadequate and creates much of the test anxiety surrounding standardized test. I have found that explaining the difference between the test I write and standardized tests relieves much of the anxiety.
There is, of course, no point in explaining jargon like normative evaluation, median, etc. It is sufficient to simply say that the people who wrote the bubble test wrote it for lots and lots of students who have been taught by lots and lots of teachers. The writers really have no idea what I taught or how I taught it. So the writers write lots of question that they expect no one will know the answer. In fact, they write the test expecting that students will miss fully half the questions. I reassure them that it is perfectly normal to feel as if they are probably missing a lot of questions. Go ahead and guess anyway.
I tell them that the test designers include questions from lower grades in the test and questions from higher grades. The test designers know which questions are which, but of course the students do not know. I tell them if they feel like they do not know a question, it is probably from a higher grade and not to worry about it. The test designers look at the answer sheet and can tell if the students correctly answered the questions from their own grade level. If they do, they will get at least 50. I tell them this does not mean 50 points, nor does it mean 50%. I tell them it is a different kind of scoring system because it is not a test that their own teacher (like me) wrote. With high school students, I discuss a little more statistics and the idea of percentiles.
This kind of explanation usually satisfies students, removes perplexity and frustration, and helps them do their best. If the teacher’s curricular philosophy and design is strong and the teacher is a skilled teacher, then there is no need to worry about the standardized tests. Simply teach, and the standardized test will take care of itself. If the curriculum is weak, teachers will feel a strong need to teach directly to the test. However, by all means, teach to your own tests.