Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is it Acceptable to Teach to the Test?

Today, my students finished the dreaded New York State 8th Grade English Language Arts exam.

We don’t score their work until late next week, but I took note of their behaviors as they took the test, and I'm hopeful as to their scores. I saw kids highlighting as they read, and the constant rustling of papers suggested that they all remembered to pre-read the multiple choice questions before reading the passages. On the extended response sections, kids were able to take the essay prompt and echo it in their introduction paragraphs. I even saw kids using my tip of going back and crossing out words to replace them with higher-level vocab. All of this leads me to one overwhelming conclusion:

I have done a very good job of teaching students how to take a state exam. I’m not sure how to feel about that, so I thought I’d weigh out my opposing views on the topic of preparing for generalized tests.

Argument Against Teaching to the Test
I remember one of my college professors standing stoically in front of the lecture hall announcing that good teachers, those who teach content and skills, will never need to resort to teaching to a test. I doubt many teachers will willingly step forward to dispute the need to focus on teaching content and skills, so this seems like a strong argument. Most district mission statements carry the underlying intent of preparing students to become productive contributors to society, and this can only be achieved with a strong foundation of knowledge and understanding.

Argument in Favor of Teaching to the Test
Much like communism, my former professor’s words of wisdom make sense in theory, but don’t apply smoothly in practice. For example, just because I have the skills to drive an automobile doesn’t exactly assure that I’m prepared to drive a tractor trailer. Skills change depending how they are applied. It’s the teacher’s job to not only teach the skills, but to prepare students for situations where those skills will be needed. The “test-taking tips” I witnessed my students using are all things that should be put into good practice when reading/writing anything – so what if they were taught in the context of a standardized test?

My Own Conclusion
A few hours before posting this I created this poll asking my 1200 Twitter followers to weigh in on the subject. So far, only 1 person has voted. Either this means I have fewer friends than I realize, or perhaps teaching to the test is something that teachers are a bit uncomfortable discussing. Do we all do it? As educators, is test prep or dirty little secret?
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