Go ahead! Teach to the Test!

April 1, 2016

Brette Woessner

Teaching to the test. The four words that seems to simultaneously bring a sense of security to teachers and make them shudder at the same time. It’s a tempting option: prepare students for a standardized test by having them practice each piece of content that could be tested in the format it will be tested, primarily multiple choice. This should prepare students. This should improve test scores. This should keep teacher jobs secure. Repeatedly exposing students to content and test format should work, right?

Sadly we all know given both personal experience and national-level data that this doesn’t work. I would posit however that students do poorly on tests not because they haven’t been exposed to all of the content (or test format), but because they have only just been exposed to the content. The content has been covered, not learned. For example, picture the following two scenarios occurring while you proctor a test come May.

Scenario 1: A student sees content she is unsure of on the test, she doesn’t know how to start investigating the problem, anxiety spikes, and the question is skipped.

Scenario 2: A student sees content she is unsure of, she pauses, re-reads the instructions, tries a few things she feels like might help lead her to the answer, and ultimately works backwards from the answer choices thinking about which might be the most reasonable option given the context.

In the first scenario, the student is likely armed with a vast, breadth of surface-level content knowledge. In the second, the same student is likely armed with admittedly a smaller subset of content knowledge, as well as persistence, initiative, estimation, bravery, attention to givens, confidence, willingness to restart, and ingenuity. The difference is that one classroom experience is focused on covering content, and one classroom experience is focused on how to approach content. One classroom fosters problem knowers while the other fosters problems solvers.

So go ahead and teach to the test! But first make one critical shift in your test preparation mantra. Heading into testing season, I encourage you to actively shift your mindset from, students will do well if they know the content –> students will do well if they know how to approach the content.