'teaching to the test'

Momma_Bird_OHApril 25, 2002

I live in Ohio, where we have a 4th grade proficiency test. If the child fails the reading portion, they are held back and have to repeat 4th grade. There is also a 9th grade proficiency test. If the child fails it, they get to progress but must reatke it over and over until they pass, or they can't get their diploma when they graduate - they get something like a "certificate of completion" instead.

I hear people constantly talk about teachers "teaching to the test". I would like to get the other forum members' input on just what this means. My son is only in 1st grade, and so far I am THRILLED with his school, I feel like he's learning at a much faster pace than I did in primary school, he's doing well, and his teacher is doing a great job.

So many of my friends, coworkers, and neighbors gripe about teachers "teaching to the test" but I haven't seen any evidence of this, at least yet. How would I know if a teacher was just "teaching to the test"??? In our conferences, his teacher has never even mentioned the dreaded test yet.

Thanks in advance for your insight.

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IMO, if you are happy with your son's progress don't worry about it. People always need something to gripe about. This is just their thing.


    Bookmark   April 25, 2002 at 12:31PM
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Momma Bird, I happen to be completely against Standardized Testing of ANY kind, placement testing is different usually, but the "High Stakes" tests as you seem to be speaking of do more damage than good in my opinion. Can you find out exactally what type of test this is, the actual title? One main reason that these standardized tests aren't accurate is because of the "measurement error" in the scores, reasons for lower scores range from children having a bad day the day of the test to biased material in the test, and then there are the tests that ask questions on material that the children haven't even covered in class yet!!
"Teaching to the Test" means that the teacher's are "forced" to revolve their lessons and/or activities around the content of the Standardized Tests. This basically means that during this time, children are literally being robbed of an opportunity to do some REAL learning and not merely being force fed test material.
As I have posted and responded before, I am very passionate about this particular issue. I have posted some web addresses with information regarding standardized testing, both opinion sites from Professionals such as Alfie Kohn, to recently research sites such as "Fairtest" and the "National Coalition of Education Activists." There are also links of course from these sites that can provide you with further information!!
Please let us know what you find out regarding your son's test!! Thanks!! :)

    Bookmark   April 25, 2002 at 5:34PM
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I think you need to put your bias on standardized tests away for a minute and listen to what Mommabird is saying. She was thrilled with the school until she heard other parents griping. She was pleased with the pace of the curriculum and generally happy. Then she heard some people griping about something she has seen no evidence of.

My advice in her case would be independent of my opinion on standardized testing. The point is that until she heard others griping she was totally thrilled. So my advice would be that if she was happy yesterday, be happy today. Nothing has changed from then until now. Parents will ALWAYS have gripes about schools. This happens to be the gripe of the day at her school. If she is happy with the school there is no reason for her to let other people's gripes bother her.

Just because someone else has a problem that doesn't make it her problem.


    Bookmark   April 26, 2002 at 7:56AM
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If it is a valid test, then there is nothing wrong with "teaching to the test."

For example, if I am giving a standardized math test at the end of the school year, and it involves a lot of logic and problem solving skills, then I will make sure that I use the math time to emphasize logic problems, along with the other skills in the curriculum. My students would learn to use problem solving skills over the course of the year.

Yes, if it was in the curriculum, I would still teach it, but I probably wouldn't emphasize it as much as I would if I knew that my students were going to be held accountable at the end of the year.

I taught for ten years and don't have a problem with standardized testing. I saw too many teachers who were just doing their own thing- you can give the same curriculum to ten teachers, and have the students all learn vastly different things. Teachers need to keep the end in mind as they are teaching, and standardized testing does that.

I think there is a set of information that students must know, especially in the early grades. When a school system decides exactly WHAT that information is, then teachers can be more effective.

My problem is with all the tests that claim to be standardized, but really aren't. I'll use Maryland as an example. The parents and general public believes that Maryland's current testing system is standardized, but it isn't. The tests are all essay based, and are graded by teachers who all have very different opinions. In Maryland, the tests are given in grades 3, 5, and 8, but the students start learning the test taking skills in first grade. All content (such as science) is set aside, because the test is only graded on the student's writing ability. The children don't even have to get the right answer on a science activity, as long as the paragraph explaining it is written correctly.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2002 at 8:20AM
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They are probably complaining because they think the content of the test is not good enough. Each of the state tests are different, and there is really an art to writing a test that can truly evaluate a student's skills - and a lot of these tests don't do it. Parents have every reason to get upset if teachers are teaching to a test that doesn't do a good job of measuring ability. Because then the kids are missing out on a real education.

April, the ability to write a coherent paragraph explaining why you think what you think is more important than knowing the answer to a science question while in fifth grade. Writing is one of the skills that we all need to use for our whole lives. That is probably why they want to test the writing alone. The GRE now has a writing test as well. The scoring system is pretty rigorous from what I have read. So if MD's teachers are scoring arbitrarily, it is not because there are no resources for a standardized scoring system. It is because the legislature is too cheap and stupid to do the testing right. In math, multiple choice is often adequate, but in language it is totally not.

Here is an article about how writing tests at the K-12 level are often scored:


And here is how the GRE writing test is scored:


I attached a report from the ETS - the company that writes the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc. It discusses the pathetic-ness of many of the tests used by states, and the fact that testing is often a cop-out substitute for real education reform, and yes, teaching to the test can lower the level of teaching in schools. Obviously this company is not opposed to standardized testing. But they would like to see it done right. Which is challenging, and costs money.

Here is a link that might be useful: testing in K-12

    Bookmark   April 26, 2002 at 11:57AM
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My 3rd grader just finished taking the Terra Nova, the test TN is using this year. So I went searching for as much information as I could possibly find to be prepared.

I found a website that listed the skills that are tested in each content area at each grade level. I'll post the link in a sec. If the teachers "teach to" the test by making sure all those areas are covered, yippee! It was a good list, a good foundation for a curriculum. If they "teach to" the test by teaching test taking skills and giving students a couple sample tests during the school year, yippee! Test taking skills will serve them well their entire lives, and not just for taking tests. They learn study skills, being efficient, and reasoning from test taking skills.

Then I also learned, from all this websurfing, that the publisher of almost all their text books (McGraw-Hill) is also the publisher of the Terra Nova test. If that constitutes "teaching to" the test, yippee! I like the text books. The language and reading books are full of both classic and contemporary children's literature. The science and social studies books teach terms and concepts as well as ask probing questions. I am satisfied. And they have been using the text books longer than they've been using the test, didn't buy the books to prepare for the test.

I think people mean so many different things by "teaching to the test." Sometimes they mean that teachers only teach memorization that students can spit back out on the standardized test. Or they mean that teachers only cover a lesson if it will be on that test at the end of the year. I don't think that is true, maybe the exception but not the rule. First, look at the test. It requires logic, reading skills, actually having learned a concept, not just memorization. I've seen many samples of the FCAT (Florida's test), and even taken one at a PTA conference, and you can't just program a kid to do well on that test. They have to actually know and understand many levels of concepts. Second, the tests don't cover irrelevant information. There isn't a thing I've seen on those tests that I wouldn't want my child to know. If there isn't time to cover all that's on those tests and still get to other educational activities, it's because of other reasons: too many students in the class, wasted instuctional time, discipline issues in the classroom. Finally, if you ever find that your child's teacher is drilling her students day after day in order to cover the skills on the standardized test, that is her method, not the curriculum. A teacher can use premade lesson plans to cover those skills and still engage students in fun, critical thinking activities if she hasn't learn to think up a few on her own.

But most of the time, I think the person saying that has no clue what they mean. They are just repeating what they heard from another parent, a teacher or administrator who had a bad day (because they have no business bad mouthing the school/district to parents in such a non-contructive way), or from the latest zealot in the media. Mommabear is right, they just like to complain, feel like they are being cheated for whatever reason. If Johnny isn't doing well in school it's easier for most parents to blame the school, the test, the teacher, than take any responsibility for any of it themselves.

Standardized tests take all of 6 hours out of the entire school year. The kids spend more time than that waiting in line for lunch throughout the year. For pete's sake, what is a spelling test if it's not teaching to a test? Do we want our kids to stop taking spelling tests? It might look like nothing but memorization, but they learn spelling rules, exceptions to the rules, handwriting and capitalization, study and test taking skills all from a spelling test. You could argue that teachers "teach to" every test they give all year. They study a chapter, do homework on it, answer questions about it, review the vocabulary, among other activities, then take a prepared test on it. Teaching to a test is not a new thing, we just used to call it "study and be prepared."

Mommabird, you are doing the right thing. From other posts, I know you communicate with your child's teacher and keep up with what he is doing despite your busy life. Keep talking to the teacher, asking what is taught regularly, look at his textbooks, do some internet search on the test he will take. (Oh, and Go Buckeyes!)

Here's the link I said I'd post and I think I'll not post on this subject again. :o) Are we done ladies?

Here is a link that might be useful: Terra Nova skills checklists

    Bookmark   April 26, 2002 at 12:13PM
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Pretty thorough, Stephanie!

There was an article in the NYTimes Sunday magazine a few weeks ago about standardized tests. The writer visited a stresed school in Newark NJ (or some other stressed city in NJ) in which teachers did lament that they sacrificed enriching parts of the curriculum in order to drill students for the tests. They even held Saturday test-prep sessions.

Interestingly, the students LIKED the test-prep session. And they did miss not studying Shakespeare, for example. But they, and some of their teachers, also felt the kids were learning things from all the test prep.

The final conclusion: it wasn't all bad.

Interestingly, in high school I had a teacher to taught to the test. In fact, she TAUGHT THE TEST. The day before a test, she'd read us the questions, so we could memorize the answers for one day. I HATED her as a teacher. She was nice, and everything, but I never felt tested (once I even asked to go to the library so I didn't have to sit through listening to her tell us every question that would be on the test the next day, along with the answers). The stupid thing was, she had taught the material, and I never would have any trouble passing her test, so she really didn't need to coach us like that.

Frankly, she was a bad teacher. I learned things in her class, but it was not a challenge at all. That's what I think of when I think of the term "teaching to the test"--a direct review of all the questions w/ answers. But even that, if done thoroughly enough or well enough, is not necessarily a bad thing.

We do Terra Nova, too--I'll have to take a look. Thanks!

I'm lucky; at my parochial school, they consider the tests to be an assessment tool for the school as a whole, and don't place too much emphasis on preparation for them, and they encourage us not to place too much emphasis on the scores. I guess they're figuring they'll get better info if they just go through the coursework and curriculum the regular way. They're probably right.

I focus on daily schoolwork--that's how I can tell whether my kid is learning, what my kid is learning, etc.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2002 at 5:54PM
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OK, Mommabear, I was correctly responding according to the TYPE of test it SEEMS Mommabird is referring to, a test in which the results depend on weather or not a child passes a grade or can graduate.
"Teaching to the Test" in terms of Standardized Tests IS what I said it was...I questioned they exact type of test also, because I DO happen to understand that there ARE completely valid tests in schools, but "high stakes" tests are what I was under the impression this post was referring to.
Also thank you Anita for the link, and for your words as well.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2002 at 7:16PM
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Wow - I didn't know this would stir up such a fuss! The "test" is Ohio's 4th and 9th grade proficiency tests. I am not sure, but I think they are written each year by the state department of education. They are scored at the state level, too, but I'm not exactly sure who does the scoring. I know people have gripped that there are not actually teachers writing the tests, but bureaucrats.

Actually, I'm still thrilled with DS's school. I haven't heard other parents from that school talk about teaching to the test. In my town, we have "open enrollment" and also alternative schools - you can send your child to basically any school in the city if they can get in by lottery. There are many, many schools represented in my neighborhool, plus private schools. It's parents whose child goes to other public or private schools I hear gripping. AND, my DS's school has a 100% passage rate on the frist try!!! So whatever his teachers are doing, they are doing it right!

One friend in particular told me that in her first confrerence with her DD's teacher in first grade, the teacher said her DD was behind because if she didn't improve in certain areas to a certain level by the middle of first grade, she would not be on track to pass a certain area of the 4th grade proficiency test. It upset my friend that a first grade teacher was teaching to the test that wouldn't be given for 3 more years.

Thanks for your input. I need to do more research on the test itself. I've been lax because I don't see it as a choice - he has to take the test, period.

Stephanie - go Bucks! I live about 5 miles North of Ohio State campus, right up High Street (in Clintonville). You can't live here and not be a Buckeye, whether or not you went to Ohio State (I didn't, I'm a Bobcat - OU).

    Bookmark   April 29, 2002 at 9:34AM
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I know that area! I did go to OSU, lived on Lane Ave while I was there, 1988-92. I always thought the campus/ High St. area was the prettiest in the spring, so I can just picture it now. I still have lots of family in central and northwest Ohio, we go there often.

You're right, you can't live that close to campus and not cheer for the Buckeyes. I just dare you to hang a blue/maize flag outside your house! hehe.


    Bookmark   April 29, 2002 at 11:21AM
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I live in Texas.

My daughter went to a private school through 4th grade where they did not have standardized tests. IMO, there was no accountability. What measure did I have that she was learning what she should?

She's in public school now & I have a yearly assessment of how she's doing individually & compared to others in her school & the state.

My parents grew up in New York State & I heard the term "teaching to the test" all my life. If the test is a balanced snapshot of what the children need to know, there's no harm in it.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2002 at 12:40AM
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"April, the ability to write a coherent paragraph explaining why you think what you think is more important than knowing the answer to a science question in fifth grade."

Anita- I understand your theory- however, when I hire a contractor to build a house for me and he builds the roof just a few inches short of the walls, it doesn't matter to me how well he can JUSTIFY his wrong answer, because I'd be getting wet every time it rains. I don't care what he THINKS if my house isn't built correctly.

Somewhere along the line, we need to give tests to children that require them to come up with the CORRECT answer, not just some good BS explaining HOW they came up with the answer.

Right now, many states are allowing this theory of "As long as they can justify their answer" ALL the way through until high school graduation. When do the students learn that in the real world, getting the RIGHT answer is all that matters???

    Bookmark   April 30, 2002 at 9:15AM
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To continue your analogy - when you hire a contractor to work on your house, you expect him to do the job completely and correctly. But the contractor didn't enter the workforce knowing how to remodel a house. First he had to learn how to use a hammer and a drill and whatnot. The tools of the job. Writing is a tool for success in school. The contractor never knows what kind of problems he will face when he walks onto a new job. But if he knows how to use his toolbox, he can probably handle whatever crops up. No one can know the right answer all the time. But by being able to learn and communicate, they can improve their changces of finding the answer out.

If you want to test kids in science, test them in science. But there is no point in mixing science tests with reading tests. Because when the score is evaluated, how are you supposed to know which keeds need to work on their writing and which need to work on their science? That is just inefficient.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2002 at 2:22PM
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I agree that writing is a tool. My concern is that in our district, ALL that is emphasized is the writing. It doesn't matter whether the answers are right or not- if they can justify it and use the right buzz words, they get full credit.

In science, the kids should be tested in science. In our district, their SCIENCE grade is only scored on their writing! Same with social studies, and to an extent, even math. If the child can explain the processes he used to come up with the wrong answer, then he gets full credit - whether he ends up with the correct answer or not. (In other words, it's okay to say that 2 plus 1 equals 21, as long as you can write a good reason for why you think it's true.)

    Bookmark   April 30, 2002 at 10:00PM
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" the teacher said her DD was behind because if she didn't improve in certain areas to a certain level by the middle of first grade, she would not be on track to pass a certain area of the 4th grade proficiency test. "

This doesn't sound so bad to me--she won't know it well enough to be considered proficient, as measured by the test. OK, it's early, but now's the time to emphasize a certain area, before dry rot has set in.

And If the test is valid, it seems sensible to be teaching to it. ESPECIALLY in a way this general--"she's weak in this area, and experience has shown us that for her to be strong by 4th grade (4 years from now), she needs to be stronger than this"

    Bookmark   May 1, 2002 at 4:34PM
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I agree with you Talley Sue. But if I was a parent, I would rather have the teacher explain to me WHY the particular area was important, and let it just be assumed that of course, because it is important, it will be on the test. Otherwise, it doesn't really appear that the teacher is in touch with why she is doing what she is doing.

People make the point that we need standardized tests so we know that teachers are sticking with the curriculum. But a teacher who designs his or her own curriculum, really thinks it through and adapts it to the needs of the particular class, is probably a more capable teacher. That doesn't mean that the custom curriculum shouldn't have each element of the standardized curriculum on it. But a teacher who is only able to follow the standardized curriculum is probably a less competent, less creative, less committed teacher than the teacher who is capable of designing a custom curriculum.

So even if two teachers are following the same curriculum, wouldn't you rather hear, "Johnny needs to work on counting by twos because that skill will help make the times tables more easy for him to learn," than "Johnny needs to work on times tables because it is going to be on the test." Does the teacher who tells you the latter understand why the things that are on the test are on there? Does she understand that there are probably things that are NOT on the test that still help children learn the things that ARE on the test? Does she even bother to explain anything that is not on the test? Is she capable of identifying things she could do that might help children who are struggling to understand the way the test works? Or is she just TEACHING THE TEST?

We've all had teachers who taught the material and we learned the material and we passed the class and that was the end of it, and we were glad never to see that teacher again because the class was boring and difficult. And we have all had teachers who explained things in ways that made us suddenly understand them after years of confusion, and they challenged us to go the extra mile with our research and find out new facts, and we anxiously awaited that class because it was so lively and we never knew what our opinions might be afterward of topics we thought we had all figured out. A lot of the excitement of some of those great classes came from the teacher giving you the physical freedom to work at an appropriate pace and the intellectual freedom to explore mental tangents which could prove to be irrelevant. The wrong turns we make teach us how to reason; how to make better choices in the future. Maybe the problem that Momma Bird's friends are having is that the teachers their children have are not very good teachers - they teach the children to pass the test, but not to be creative, enthusiastic critical thinkers who pass the test.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2002 at 8:21PM
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AR does this. We actually do standardized tests at the beginning of the year every year. This is the one (SAT9)where they show the child at grade level. eg. a 4th grader testing at 7th grade level in a subject. I do not mind this test so much. Then 4th;6th, and 8th grades (I think they start 11th next year) they take what is called Benchmark Exams. They do teach to the test. One day every week from teh end of SAT9's to April, when they take Benchmarks, they do Benchmark quizzes. The grade 1-4 does not go the gradebook. It just lets the kids and parents know how they are doing. 1 below basic;2basic;3 proficient;4 advanced. If they get a 2 or below on writing, reading, or math, a resource file is started in their permanent file. One problem I see with this test is the grading. If a child gets a math problem correct, but does not show their work, they get a 2 or 3. If they show their work, but get the wrong answer they get a 3. If they show work and get the correct answer, they get a 4. They do give more credit for showing the work than anything. As for the writing, one of my child's teachers told her she will do well since she knows "big" words. (The content did not count as much as the use of those words.) They teach to the test because in AR, the teachers evaluations and raises are based on the children's scores. It means more than the child's grades. BTW, dd is a straight A student. However, she could get a resource file started if she does not score high enough on this test. At our school, if they do well enough-at least a 3 on all parts, they go on a filed trip next year.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2002 at 11:20AM
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