3 min read

Is teaching to the test cheating?

Thankfully we don't have standardized tests in NZ yet, although there have been mutters from some in politics that they should be introduced here. It is usually condemned as the opposite of relevant and 'real' teaching, so I was interested to read these comments from Walt Gardner, writing in the Deseret News.  (No, that's not a typo.)

The key paragraph in his argument is this.

"There is a distinct difference between teaching to the broad body of skills and knowledge that a test represents (good) and teaching to the exact items that will appear on the standardized test (indefensible and illegal).

Teaching students how to answer a particular set of items that appears on a test shortchanges them ethically and educationally.

The confusing part arises when we fail to make that distinction".
I can follow the rest of his argument as well, and his analogy of how a sports coach works with an athlete is also relevant. I also appreciate the point that he makes in the final paragraphs.
"In an attempt to help schools provide a quality education, reformers mistakenly believe that covering as much material as possible is the way to go. But this approach is counterproductive. It overloads teachers by designing a curriculum that emphasizes breadth over depth.

The result is that teachers are given far too many targets to aim at in their lessons. These extensive lists of high-blown objectives certainly look impressive on paper, but they cannot realistically be addressed by teachers in their day-to-day instructional decisions. This is particularly the case when classes are composed of students with a wide range of individual differences. And this doesn't even take into consideration the time constraints of a given school year, which puts great pressure on teachers in planning their lessons."
These are excellent points and very relevant ones. The nature of lesson planning is to make sense of our teaching, but it certainly does not make the average workload any less busy! We need to make sure the content of our lessons is precise and that we are doing "more with less".

Mark Treadwell gives the example of trying to teach the solar system to 12 year olds in an 8 week unit (2/3 lessons a week), and expecting them to understand the subject after that time.  It's impossible unless they have at least some concept of what gravity is.  Our assessment on these sorts of projects is usually a poster, that's been cut and pasted from wikipedia and includes some google images. Astronomers spend their entire lives studying a planet, and yet we demand that intermediate age school students explain the entire solar system to us. It's bonkers.

Teaching students that 'broad base of skills knowledge' requires teaching them the basics that they don't know.  It requires giving them practice to hone their writing, to explain their maths strategies, to discuss with others their thinking.  It demands that we set high standards of presentation in our teaching, that we use correct grammar and spelling, that we explain our instructions carefully, that we constantly give them considered and honest feedback.

I think high quality teachers can focus on all those basics; that is, those standardized items - while still providing experiences that broaden and challenge the enthusiasm and minds of young people. On a daily basis.

That sort of teaching takes a lot of hard work.

That sort of teaching demands that we as teachers step up, but why shouldn't we?

Don't we expect that sort of work ethic from our students?

If not, why not?

In his final paragraph, Mr Gardner says this:

So the next time you hear that your child's teacher is "teaching to the test," think about this: The teacher may well be engaging in perfectly solid instruction.
That teacher may well be - but they need to be held accountable to what that 'solid instruction' consists of. If they can't provide evidence of that, then to my mind their crime is worse than teaching to the test. They're cheating their students out of the learning experiences they deserve.

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