Since you asked...
I work in New York City: trust me, I have seen the bad kind of "teaching to the test." I've read Mr. E's complaints about his school's policy of "all test prep, all the time." Other schools devote certain days of the week, certain periods (ie, homeroom), or certain months exclusively to test prep, that is, to drilling and practicing on sample test questions, to teaching kids techniques which may or may not be useful reading strategies, but which are assuredly good test-taking strategies. I think this kind of "teaching to the test" is awful. It's boring for both students and teachers, it replaces projects that ask the kids to engage with material and take pride in their work, and it is a stop-gap measure that allows schools to avoid punitive policies without necessarily resulting in the kids learning a whole lot that will help them outside of test-land.
That said, I "teach to the test."
There, I've said it. I do.
The test I teach to is the NYS Intermediate Level Science Exam, given in 8th grade.
It's not a perfect test, and god help you if English is not your first language, but I think it can provide a pretty good assessment of what a student has learned in four years of science instruction. It's a mix of multiple choice, constructed response (the test items formerly known as "short answer"), and performance questions. Students analyze diagrams, collect data, explain their thinking, and create graphs. It's a little heavy in terms of breadth of content, but remember, this is supposed to test four years of science instruction.
I think it could help schools assess the quality and rigor of their science programs. I don't think it should be used the exclusive instrument for program evaluation, but it's a useful enough tool. I wouldn't be so desperate to find out my students' scores if I didn't think the test could tell me something about what they learned and what aspects of my teaching were effective.
So, what does "teaching to the test" look like in my classroom?
It means that I'm familiar with the state standards and other documents trying to describe the knowledge and skills possessed by a well-educated individual. It means that I've taken a sample copy of the test itself, to get a sense of what kinds of content and skills my students will need to do well on this test. It means that I've reflected on which of these skills are "test skills" and which are real science or thinking skills. It means that when I sit down to plan my year or a unit or a lesson, I keep all these things in mind, I sequence the content so that one topic builds upon the previous, I integrate the science skills throughout my units. Does it mean that I attempt to hit every topic? Hell, no! Every good teacher knows the importance of making choices about curriculum, what to spend more time on, what to touch on briefly, what to leave out altogether. I firmly believe that, with this test at least (certainly not all!), if I teach the content carefully and in an engaging manner, if I teach thinking and doing skills and provide many chances for practice, and if I throw in a practice test or two and a little review in the last couple of weeks before the test, then come test day, the kids will be fine.
The kids don't need to know 100% of the material in the standards to get a good score. Many of the multiple choice sections ask them to interpret diagrams or graphs; if you've given them a wide variety of diagrams over the years and asked them good questions, they will have the thinking skills to figure out any new ones they see on the test.
And that's why I agree with Jay Mathews on this one:
And if you watched the best teachers at work, as I have many times, you would see them treating the state test as nothing more than another useful guide and motivator, with no significant change in the way they present their lessons.
Matt Lintner, in his response, criticizes the "one-size-fits-all" nature of teaching to the standards:
If, on the other hand, you believe true education is inherently personal, that schools should expose rather than indoctrinate, that there is more than one right way to live; if you value authentic learning over regurgitation and believe self-motivation is the only motivation that truly counts, you’ll resist the one-size-fits-all-or-else fervor that’s hijacked public schooling.
I agree with him that schools - mine included - reward conformity. I'm not a Core Knowledge kind of gal. At the same time, if each of us sat down and made a list of academic things that are important to know, I suspect our lists would be more similar than different. We'd probably include basic math, strong reading and writing skills in a variety of genres, knowledge of our country's history, world history, ancient cultures, some ecology, astronomy, chemistry, physics, and biology (especially human biology), and so on. Some people's lists would include a lot of art and music, others more science or history, but there would be substantial overlap. Knowing these things allows one to participate in the conversation going on around us at all times; this is so-called "cultural capital," something that I am absolutely certain that most parents want for their children. The controversies, which take so much energy, remain at the fringes: this book versus that book, more Egypt or more Maya, evolution versus intelligent design; there are vast territories of agreement. To the extent that a test accurately assesses this body of knowledge, I believe it is fair and useful.
If I sat down to decide what to teach, without the guidance of the standards, I think I'd end up with a pretty similar curriculum to what I design with the help of the standards. But it's a lot easier planning with the aid of these documents.
So, sure, I teach to the test, and it just doesn't seem like that big a deal. I don't feel like I'm selling myself or my students short.
My complaints regarding testing?
- Too much, too often. Yearly, 2-3 day tests in several subjects are eating days and days from the school year. Enough already. I think three rounds of content area teaching (late elementary school, middle school, and high school) ought to be plenty, with perhaps one additional round of reading testing early in elementary school to help identify kids who are struggling.
- Mis-use. I am wholly behind the use of such tests by teachers and administrators to help improve their programs. I am not convinced that tests alone should be used to judge whether a school should be shut down or a student held back in 1st grade. It is this mis-use that creates the fear and anxiety which result in test-prep immersion. The test itself doesn't lead to poor teaching; fear takes care of that.
- Poor quality instruments. Largely as a result of the enormous quantity of testing being done, the tests themselves are getting worse, at least in my limited experience. The ILS exam is pretty good, but there's no way a high quality science test could be given yearly; we'd quickly find ourselves staring down the barrel of facts-only multiple choice.
And that's what I think.