Perspectives 5: “Teaching to the test”

Someone, anyone, whoever…please explain to me why it is wrong to teach to a test.

—Jon-Paul @ American Age,
Teaching to the Test!

Whether it is “wrong” to teach to a test is, to a large degree, a value judgment; it depends fundamentally on what goals we are striving to achieve. I don’t agree with the assertion that it is “eminently sound pedagogy”, but again this may well depend on our objectives. I won’t attempt to explain why it is wrong to teach to a test, but I will explain why I judge it to be wrong.

Jon-Paul points out that

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).

The distinction he makes is important. I have observed a few instances where an instructor for a university course answered a student’s question with a response like “don’t worry about that right now, there’s no question on the test about it.” Jon-Paul’s conception of “good” teaching avoids this type of teaching to the test. Even with this conception, however, I still have two objections to such teaching. One objection is the use of the preposition to and what it implies about goals and achievement. The other concerns the relationship between a body of skills and knowledge on the one hand, and a test on the other.

The preposition to

The complete entry for to in the OED runs to about 8 pages, which I won’t reproduce here. The principal senses of to (A) are:

I. Expressing a spatial or local relation.
II. Expressing a relation in time.
III. Expressing the relation of purpose, destination, result, effect, resulting condition or status.
IV. Followed by a word or phrase expressing a limit in extent, amount, or degree.
V. Indicating addition, attachment, accompaniment, appurtenance, possession.
VI. Expressing relation to a standard or to a stated term or point.
VII. Expressing relations in which the sense of direction tends to blend with the dative.
VIII. Supplying the place of the dative in various other languages and in the earlier stages of English itself.

For those not familiar with it, the dative is essentially a way of indicating that the noun phrase is an indirect object. Across the board, to conveys a sense of limit. It suggests that just enough be taught to reach that limit.

Here’s a situation that is quite similar: preparing to give a presentation. When we present something (in a business meeting, at a conference, in a classroom, or wherever), we will be evaluated on the performance of a single act, just as students are evaluated on a single act of taking a test. When I prepare to give such a presentation, I don’t gather “just enough” information to put the presentation together. No good presenter does. Why not? There are several reasons to gather more information than we strictly need for a presentation, including being able to respond to questions that may be asked. But more importantly, this extra information actively helps us to master the material we will be presenting.

In science and engineering, we constantly look at the boundary conditions on any system we study, not just the interior behavior. We examine the boundary conditions because they help us to understand the purpose and behavior of the system. In software development, understanding the boundaries of a software system are often the key to understanding why certain pieces of it are the way they are. I’ve found the same to be true with any system of knowledge we may care to describe. I suspect that teaching “to” a test may well predispose us to teaching prescriptive rules rather than helping students to achieve understanding or mastery of a subject.

The relationship between tests and a body of knowledge

Jon-Paul’s comment suggested that good instructors will be “teaching to the broad body of skills and knowledge that a test represents”, and construes this to be equivalent to “teaching to the test”. Not only are the two not equivalent, but the skills and knowledge that a test represents do not cover the range of skills and knowledge that should be acquired by a student.

Test have a very specific function: they serve as a measurement instrument to help teachers and other education professionals to assess a student’s level of mastery of a subject. This has a couple of implications. The first of these is a general principle that the measurement instrument should not influence what is being measured, because it compromises the measurements made; in this case, it undermines the purported value of testing and, in particular, of standardized tests. A second implication is that, as an assessment instrument, it has been designed to focus on certain aspects of some portion of what it seeks to measure. Moreover, tests are notoriously limited to those aspects of a subject that are “testable”. Both the design focus and the criterion of testability limit what can be represented by a test.

The reason that I find teaching to the test so particularly wrong is that, in my assessment, it nurtures a culture of underachievement, restricts the development of a student’s ability to think critically, fosters an inability for people to connect their knowledge to any real application of that knowledge, and disrupts the only defensible reason for inflicting tests on people in the first place. Tests need to reflect the subject matter that is being taught, but cannot mediate between the subject matter and the pedagogic choices about its presentation. As I said at the outset, however, it all depends on the goals one wants to achieve.

Copyright © 2008 Michael L. McCliment

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