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Teaching to the Test…Is it Okay?

By: Donna Hupe
Posted Mon., January 9, 2012

Some college students, who are studying teacher strategies and observing in classrooms as they prepare to be teachers, are formulating opinions that the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) is stunting creative teaching.  This opinion needs to be examined and, in some ways, corrected.

In 1999, the Pennsylvania Department of Education adopted standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening.  The purpose of these standards was to “identify what a student should know and be able to do at varying grade levels.”  The PA Department of Education also went on to state that the “school districts possessed the freedom to design curriculum and instruction to ensure that students met or exceeded the standards' expectations.”

Whenever states began to adopt standards and mandate that public schools present a state assessment, a phrase “teaching to the test” became a point of discussion among educators.  This phrase is often used as “a way to express frustration that some outside authority is determining the content of the tests, and teachers are in the unfavorable position to merely teach students the content of the impending tests” (Instructional Strategies for Middle and High School, Larson and Keiper).  A concern evolved that teachers were leaving their creative styles of teaching and were no longer providing activities for their students that motivated learning. 

It is important that college students engaged in teacher preparation realize that this is not occurring in most classrooms.  There are many dedicated teachers who have learned how to utilize “teaching to the test” as a tool rather than a method that narrows their styles to only lecturing and providing “drill and kill” types of tasks.  Rather, these teachers are able to engage their students in activities that promote discovery, problem solving, and creative thinking.

The key to insuring that “teaching to the test” does not become a burden for students is to examine whether assessments being used are valid.  There are various types of assessments, including authentic and performance assessments, and all should be used as tools to guide learning.  By using various assessment techniques, students are then able to demonstrate the skills they have mastered and are able to improve, as well as, enrich their learning.

W. James Popham, the author of Transformative Assessment, wrote an informative article (2001) titled,  Teaching to the Test: High Crime, Misdemeanor, or Just Good Instruction .  Popham suggested that educators should "immediately expunge the phrase 'teaching to the test' from our educational lexicon, forcing folks to say either 'teaching to the test's items' or 'teaching to the knowledge/skills' represented by the test."

This suggestion is one that should be seriously considered by teachers and administrators.  By holding conversations within the schools and discussing what “teaching to the test” truly means, educators can discover that the problems that might be linked with “covering state standards”, can be solved and alleviated. 

College students who are enrolled as education majors should discuss, in their classes, how assessments can be tools for student learning.  Test scores should not be used for the sole reasons of determining how a teacher may teach students and whether that teacher is a successful educator.  Rather, the purpose of assessment should always be to improve and enrich student learning.

Other ideas and opinions regarding this topic can be found at:

http://www.nctm.org/about/content.aspx?id=842 
(viewpoint by past NCTM President, Cathy Seeley)

http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/perspectives/teaching-test 
(commentary)

http://college.cengage.com/education/pbl/tc/assess.html 
(Houghton Mifflin, publisher)

http://www.psea.org/general.aspx?id=8330 
(PSEA Proposal “Solutions that Work” linked with teacher evaluation)

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Donna Hupe,
Education

Donna Hupe teaches ED 101 – Field Experience I and has been a Pre-Student Teacher/Student Teacher Supervisor at Saint Vincent College for the past five and a half years.