Thursday, July 27, 2006

Teach to the Test?

This Charles Murray article criticizing the "No Child Left Behind" act makes a typical complaint regarding testing:
Test scores in Texas went up for both blacks and whites. Maybe that's good news, representing real gains in learning for everyone, or maybe it's not so good, representing the effects of teaching to the test. The data Texas reports do not permit a judgment.
1) What exactly is teaching to the test? It seems to be a catchphrase that simply means teaching a specific subject that is going to be tested. Right? So if the teacher knows that a state-wide or national test is going to include long division, the teacher will make sure the class learns long division.

2) Why is "teaching to the test" something to be contrasted to "real gains in learning"? If, as I suggest above, a test includes long division, and the teacher covers long division in class in order to make sure that kids do well on the test, then when the class learns long division, they have made a "real gain in learning," have they not? Why on earth should their knowledge of long division be discounted or slighted merely because the upcoming test gave the teacher the motivation to teach them long division?

Now if the test covered something that fourth-graders don't need to learn -- say, the ability to memorize transcripts of World Wrestling Foundation events -- then "teaching to the test" would indeed be a problem. Not because "teaching to the test" is bad in and of itself, but because the test itself measures the wrong thing.

But if a test measures something useful -- something that kids should be learning anyway, whether or not they were going to be tested -- then shouldn't "teaching to the test" be, on average, a good thing? At least, it wouldn't be somehow *contrary* to "real learning."

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8 Comments:

Blogger occamsnailfile said...

I was somewhat randomly passing by this journal and can offer some commentary on why 'teaching to the test' is a bad thing. The first, and the easiest statement to make is that because so much emphasis is placed upon 'the test' in programs like NCLB, schools focus a huge amount of their time on it, to the exclusion of other areas of learning in subjects.

Now, if the subjects on standardized tests were indeed what a child needs to learn to gain a good understanding of a subject, that might not be so bad-- but such is not the case. The tests generally serve only to test very rote and repetitive learning, such as long lists of vocabulary words (not the same thing as being able to write), recitation of scientific formulae (which can be memorized without truly understanding the process) or regurgitation of historical dates without seeing how they weave together to shape where we are now.

Even tests with essay sections such as the SAT can be 'gamed', as was proven by Karin Klein in her LA Times piece "How I Gamed The SAT and they test only a generalized sort of English construction, not true writing ability or even logical argument.

All of these skills tested are useful (and math is probably the easiest subject to hold to a standard) but not the end-all of learning in those subjects. It's the boring memorization-based elements that students hate the most and which they plow through often early in their school careers. Once you've grasped that Columbus sailed in 1492, wouldn't it be nice to move on to why the Spanish crown was in a position to fund such an expedition when the Italians were not? To the effects of colonization upon local peoples in the West? The effect on Europe itself, the sudden rush to colonize?

Some tests require more careful thinking and writing, but those are the most expensive to score and administer. The Advanced Placement exams fall into this category. The GRE tests general logic skills inlcuding very basic grasp of Geometry and a simple capacity to see patterns in problems that allow them to solved really without so much as even a calculator because one understands the systems at work and can find common factors or shortcuts in seemingly complex arithmatic.

Another problem with many of these tests, mentioned above in the LA Times article, is that the tests can be 'gamed' and very easily at that. Buying a book for the GRE reveals the generalized structure that they use to formulate questions. The SAT, ACT and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) all have similar test-manuals available. Any test used widely by schools will become burdened by a similar industry which will teach the children how better to take multiple choice tests, a very specific kind of problem-solving they will never have to use again. Real life problems do not face you simply with a 'Choice A, B, and C' of which two are obviously wrong for syntactical reasons.

Tests are a useful tool for teaching, but they should not be the only tool, nor are they a good single bar to evaluate a student's ability or even a school's readiness. Using standardized tests in this fashion is a 'magic bullet' solution, too simple to be any actual good. Here one can use an example of the Japanese educational system, so often touted as a model for our own: Most students are compelled to study English for the majority of their school careers. I've met Japanese college-level English majors who could barely stutter through a sentence; they learned it, learned specific constructions, for a standardized test, but had little to no practical use or ability with the language.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Brett said...

Any test, due to time constraints, can only sample the domain being taught. "Teaching to the test" involves finding out what points are being sampled, and teaching those specifically, instead of teaching the domain.

For instance, a test might determine whether a student was taught their state capitols by asking the capitol of Pennsylvania. "Teaching to the test" would involve ignoring the rest of the states' capitols, and only teaching Pennsylvania's.

So, yes, it is bad, though not quite so bad as not teaching at all.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Dick Tatlow said...

I find it hard to believe that two tests in a row would use the same specific state in testing the students knowledge of state capitals - or even if testing the students knowledge of state capitals would even be on the test!

10:19 AM  
Blogger J Bowen said...

Of course tests can be poorly designed. But all this carping amounts to letting the best be the enemy of the good, and you might notice that no one ever seems to propose any reasonable alternatives. What they really want is no test at all, and ultimately no way to hold teachers or the larger educational establishment to a meaningful universal performance standard.

5:31 AM  
Blogger J Bowen said...

Re occamsnailfile and the Japanese students:How did he determine that they had failed? He tested them, informally. Fine - add essay requirements to tests. They're tougher and more time-consuming to grade, but they're a start. Bottom line: the footdraggers have to be ground into submission to the idea that *there will be tests*, and only then will they start looking for solutions instead of problems.

5:38 AM  
Blogger kenharkins said...

I am a certified public school teacher with with more than 30 credits toward a doctorate. That gives me special teaching certificate called an 'Education Specialist' certificate. I am also an Advanced Ground Instructor with an FAA certificate to teach private pilot ground school. Teaching to the test is exactly what almost all FAA instructors do. If it is not on the test, you don't need to know it. The FAA has done a good job of putting stuff on the test that you need to know to be a safe pilot--especially after the 'Freedom of Information Act' forced them to do it. With the Private Pilot exam there are more than a thousand potential questions and if you are able to teach your students the correct answers to all of them, then more power to you. So, I am not opposed to teaching to the test. My problem is that here in South Carolina, the state has made it illegal for teachers to know what is on the test. Teachers have been investigated and sometimes arrested for trying to find out what is on the tests. About 70% of the students score a passing grade in my field (Social Studies).
I think that means about 70% of the teachers guess correctly what information will be covered by the tests.

12:04 PM  
Blogger kenharkins said...

I am a certified public school teacher with with more than 30 credits toward a doctorate. That gives me special teaching certificate called an 'Education Specialist' certificate. I am also an Advanced Ground Instructor with an FAA certificate to teach private pilot ground school. Teaching to the test is exactly what almost all FAA instructors do. If it is not on the test, you don't need to know it. The FAA has done a good job of putting stuff on the test that you need to know to be a safe pilot--especially after the 'Freedom of Information Act' forced them to do it. With the Private Pilot exam there are more than a thousand potential questions and if you are able to teach your students the correct answers to all of them, then more power to you. So, I am not opposed to teaching to the test. My problem is that here in South Carolina, the state has made it illegal for teachers to know what is on the test. Teachers have been investigated and sometimes arrested for trying to find out what is on the tests. About 70% of the students score a passing grade in my field (Social Studies).
I think that means about 70% of the teachers guess correctly what information will be covered by the tests.

12:06 PM  
Blogger kenharkins said...

I am a certified public school teacher with with more than 30 credits toward a doctorate. That gives me special teaching certificate called an 'Education Specialist' certificate. I am also an Advanced Ground Instructor with an FAA certificate to teach private pilot ground school. Teaching to the test is exactly what almost all FAA instructors do. If it is not on the test, you don't need to know it. The FAA has done a good job of putting stuff on the test that you need to know to be a safe pilot--especially after the 'Freedom of Information Act' forced them to do it. With the Private Pilot exam there are more than a thousand potential questions and if you are able to teach your students the correct answers to all of them, then more power to you. So, I am not opposed to teaching to the test. My problem is that here in South Carolina, the state has made it illegal for teachers to know what is on the test. Teachers have been investigated and sometimes arrested for trying to find out what is on the tests. About 70% of the students score a passing grade in my field (Social Studies).
I think that means about 70% of the teachers guess correctly what information will be covered by the tests.

12:18 PM  

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