“Of course we don’t teach to the test.” I’ve worked for seven principals in the past twenty three years, and every one of them said those words to the staff at some point during each spring testing season. As a new teacher, I nodded in fervent agreement. I wanted to be an excellent teacher, so of course I would not teach to the test.
“Just teach the curriculum,” I was told. “That’s all you’re responsible for.”
Obeying was easy, really. The tests arrived at our school and were locked into a cabinet in the main office. We signed them out and made sure our students bubbled the letters of their names in the circles on the back. After we read the directions out loud word for word with as little expression as possible, students opened the test books and marked their answers with their freshly sharpened number two pencils. We could circulate through the room to proctor, but should not allow our eyes to rest on any test questions. I virtuously averted my glance as I walked between desks moved from groups into unfamiliar rows. When testing was over, the booklets were shipped off and eventually test scores came back. I honestly had no idea how those tests related to my teaching or any value I added to student learning. My principals never mentioned those test scores.
The only feedback I ever received was from a student who said, “How come you didn’t teach us to divide decimals? I think we were supposed to know it. It was on the test.”
I did teach the curriculum. We didn’t get to the lesson on dividing decimals until three weeks later – clear evidence that I had in no way taught to the test.
Those innocent days ended the first time individual school WASL scores were published in the newspaper.
We were still sternly cautioned not to teach to the test but were required to teach about the test. My teaching team and I created worksheets where students had to make sure their answer fit in the box provided because no work that was outside the box would be scored. My students were drilled to answer every math question using words, pictures,and numbers. We used every released item for practice and then wrote our own in the same format.
Then we taught students about the MSP. Now we are teaching them about the SBAC. And I’m starting to wonder – if these tests measure what we really want students to be able to know and do, shouldn’t we be teaching to the test?
“Just teach to the Common Core State Standards” is advice that sounds suspiciously like “Just teach the curriculum” but now the stakes are considerably higher for teachers and students.
Teaching to the test always sounded like cheating. Getting an unfair advantage. Giving kids the answers. But maybe that’s not what it means.
Maybe teaching to the test means going beyond teaching about the test. Should we be analyzing the differences between answers of different point value on the release date items for the SBAC? Trying to determine which standards have the highest percentage of representation on the released items? Coaching our students in persistence? Giving them a menu of strategies to approach a difficult problem?
That sounds like teaching to the test. And if what we test is what we get, and if what we want is what is being tested, that’s fine by me.
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