- by Blaine Helwig
Teaching to the Test - A Better Understanding of the Phrase
Updated: Feb 23
I have heard the expression – Teaching to the Test – for many years, but I had not deeply considered the thinking behind the phrase until approximately a month before I retired as an elementary principal. I was transitioning the school over to the assistant principal, so she designed the teacher professional development that August. During this back to school PD, she played a short Ted Talk video segment. The Ted Talk’s subject was entitled “Teaching to the Test.” After watching the short presentation with my staff, I contemplated the implications of the speaker’s message.
The Ted Talk speaker believed that the world of public education fell victim to ‘Teaching to the Test’ due to the ‘No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001’ signed into law by President George W. Bush in January of 2002. The presenter’s basic argument was that standardized testing, ‘took the fun from student learning as well as the art of teaching.’ Furthermore, in order for students to demonstrate growth, public school educators were compelled to design daily instruction that directly teaches to test performance.
In general, I feel there is truth in her Ted Talk statements as well as confusion. I do not disagree that the NCLB legislation significantly changed the instructional environment of this country’s public schools. Undoubtedly, traditional and charter public schools were directly impacted, but as far as subject content in the Ted Talk, I do not believe the basic premise – Teaching to the Test – was soundly addressed.
What is the Instructional Implication of ‘Teaching to the Test?’
Recently, I met with a colleague who works at a middle school Title 1 campus. When we discussed the educational situation at his campus, he volunteered the most bizarre revelation. Since their students had never mastered their four basic math fact operations as well as the division algorithm during elementary school, teachers required a significant number of students to memorize the decimal equivalencies of each proper fraction (e.g. 5/8 = 0.625).
I asked him if the middle school students possessed any understanding of the mathematical connection between decimals and fractions. He responded by shaking his head from side-to-side.
I continued, “What was the point of memorizing decimal-fraction equivalencies if students did not understand the connection?”
He replied, “On standardized test mathematics questions, fraction and decimal problems are common, and students have a better chance of answering the question correctly – if that specific fraction or decimal is known.”
Now, we are getting somewhere. In my opinion, this is an example of what ‘teaching to the test’ exemplifies. The ‘teaching to the test’ educator is gambling that the state assessment will ask a specific question, and their students will have a select piece of memorized knowledge that will afford them the possibility to answer that question correctly.
A Title 1 elementary school I visited on a consulting trip a couple of years ago was giving their students about 10 math questions each day that mirrored the exact problems of their State’s standardized assessment. In fact, the word problems on the State Assessment and their daily practice differed only by the quantity and number changes. However, a majority of their students possessed little mastery of the underlying math skills embedded in the word problems. I asked the teacher if she thought that a mass of her students would do well on the upcoming State assessment using this instructional approach. She responded by blaming the State’s Education Agency for forcing her into this position. I replied that this method will produce passing scores for a couple of her students that were skill proficient, but it would not produce high outcomes for a significant number of students in her class. But, since the teacher had not ensured mastery of the dependent skills, this version of ‘teach to the test’ would never produce high student outcomes for a majority of students.
What can be done to avoid, ‘Teaching to the Test?’
In my viewpoint, Title 1 elementary school and non-Title 1 elementary school standardized test performance is mainly separated by varying levels of academic skill mastery. Children who hail from middle and upper class homes possess much better grade level academic skill proficiency in three ways: from daily core lessons at school, from their parents during nightly homework sessions, or via an afterschool commercial tutoring service.
Frankly, there is rarely ‘teaching to the test’ as described above at non-Title 1 elementary schools – or there should not be. In effect, the key to heightened problem solving and literacy performance is the mastering and successful application of academic grade level skills. In doing so, the student is not overwhelmed on a story/word problem with a number of embedded discrete skills; consequently, the student is NOT attempting to learn 2 to 4 unmastered skills while solving a general application problem.
For instance, a third grade story/word problem involves estimating, but the student is not adept at rounding whole numbers. When the teacher is assisting the student, instead of solving the story/word problem, the tutorial session becomes a rounding whole number lesson. Unfortunately, it is bad 'across the board' in this skill deficient situation, since the student does NOT master rounding concept with such an abbreviated rounding whole number lesson and a lack of minimum threshold repetitions required for associated skill mastery.
Consequently, a Title 1 elementary campus can implement a ‘teach to the test’ methodology and attempt to press a small group of ‘bubble’ students to pass a standardized assessment. However, that group of students must be relatively close to the minimum passing mark and possess a sufficient fundamental skill base. In general, a Title 1 elementary school will never consistently achieve 60 to 100 percent of their students reach minimal passing levels, if the academic numeracy and literacy gaps are not closed.
Finally, if a Title 1 school implements and presses highly effective word fluency programs (1,000 word fluency program – free download at The New 3Rs Academic Transformation), and a solid daily numeracy program such as Formative Loop, students will possess fundamental skills for all students to be academically successful. However, the principal must press targeted instruction on EACH student using these stop-gap programs or only a small number of students will be ready for grade level academics.
When Test Preparatory Resources are used, is that “Teaching to the Test?”
It is a debatable point. Generally, I would respond with, “It depends.”
If elementary teachers do not focus core lessons on skill mastery but inundate students with inordinate daily test preparatory work, then my response would be, “Yes. The daily instructional practice is a ‘teaching to test’ performance technique.”
If skill mastery is pressed in core lessons and students are provided a daily application of core skills, then my response, would be, “No. It is not.” Students require word math problem practice that consists of grade level rigor as well as coordinated alignment with State standards – whether it be the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) or Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Intermediate elementary students also require a minimum exposure on standardized test formatting and test structure. Otherwise, the lack of test format familiarity with regard to word problem verbiage may influence overall performance more than a student’s base-line subject or content knowledge.
Finally, it is important to note that State Academic Standards might be generally worded. For example, a math standard may state, ‘A student will understand real-world probability applications.’ Hence, in practical terms, it is paramount that a teacher understand the Standard’s student expectations so core daily lessons are designed and aligned appropriately.
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