One of the arguments against greater school accountability and performance-driven school reform is that the introduction of more tests to measure student performance will lead to more teachers “teaching to the test.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as our district’s first periodic assessment is coming up this week, and us teachers were given a copy of the exam so that we can prepare our students for it. I’m a bit nervous about my students taking the exam as we are behind where most other students should be in an Algebra class or a Geometry class. After all, we lost almost a month of instructional time at the beginning of this school year due to constantly shifting enrollments.

Do I prepare my students for the test or not, and if I do, how will I prepare them? It’s not just a matter of wanting my class or my school to have higher scores–if students see their low scores they will lose some of the precious confidence in their math skills we’ve been building so far, and confidence (specifically, belief about self-efficacy) matters a lot.

So I’ve been wondering: what exactly is “teaching to the test” and what is it about “teaching to the test” that carries negative connotations? Standardized tests often ask students to think about mathematics or to decode mathematics presented in peculiar ways. If the content of these questions is something far removed from a teachers’ usual curriculum and the teacher is compelled to help students acquire that content, is that bad? What if that content is potentially helpful or useful for students’ mathematical development?

Consider one of the test questions on this week’s periodic assessment: (I’ve modified it slightly for this blog.)

Which is greater, 5x+1-(1-2x) or 6+2x-1-(2x-4)?

A. 5x+1-(1-2x)

B. 6+2x-1-(2x-4)

C. Not enough information

D. They are equal

This question requires students to be able to combine like terms, to be proficient with positive and negative numbers, and to reason about which of the two expressions is greater. We’re still working on combining like terms and adding and subtracting positive and negative numbers in class so would that be considered “teaching to the test”? (Doesn’t seem like it.)

To help my students answer this question successfully, I would probably have to start them off with questions such as

Which is greater, 7x or 9?

A. 7x

B. 9

C. Not enough information

D. They are equal

If I pose questions like this, am I “teaching to the test”? Seems to me a moot question. If I find the content compelling for students’ mathematical development, then I will help them learn it. If not, I’ll let students struggle with the question and let the test question do its intended job: give me information about my students’ understanding and skills.

I think what I’m trying to say through this post is that “teaching to the test” is a catch phrase that galvanizes people in educational debates, not unlike the phrase “public option” in present U.S. debates about health care reform. It seems to me that the kind of teaching that tests encourage is mostly determined by the content of the those tests. Test writers have a great deal of power as they can shape what is taught in classrooms. A bad test could potentially fill math classrooms everywhere with useless, unimaginative content. A test could even be used to circumvent state and district standards for mathematics as it can establish a de facto curriculum. And let’s not forget that developing a good test can be expensive.

Closing side note: What I find fascinating is how teaching happens on so many scales at once. The public and academics mostly talk about teaching at macroscopic scales (districts, curricula, schools, classes) but when you think about what actually happens every day in every classroom, it’s what the teacher does and says and how students process it that really matters. How will Teacher X’s beliefs about what mathematical topics are important affect the way she or he prepares students for a standardized test? How does Teacher Y’s beliefs about the way students acquire knowledge affect the way she or he implements a curriculum? Will Teacher Z maintain the high level of cognitive demand in a rich curriculum like CPM? And who is watching/can watch what happens in every class every day?

UPDATE: A friend astutely reminded me that in the “backward” teaching design process, we (1) think about what it is we want students to learn, then (2) determine acceptable evidence for students achieving those goals, then (3) plan learning activities and experiences. (I believe strongly in this design method and try to follow it when I can.) This design process necessarily involves preparing students in step (3) to do well on the assessments determined in step (2) so if that is considered “teaching to the test” I would be guilty as charged.

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