Teaching to the Test

231364920_ee7b1e4375Tests. The very word inspires dread in the heart of many a student. Who among us doesn’t remember sitting at a desk, staring down at a thick packet of paper knowing that how well we remembered the answers to the questions could significantly affect our grade in a given class. The bigger the test, the scarier the outcome.

I’ve often heard people talk with scorn about “teaching to the test.” To be fair, the test involved is usually the current version of whatever standardized assessment is in favor at the moment. But whatever the case, the implication seems to be if you teach to the test, your students are not really learning anything. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Students need to know what it is that they are expected to learn; they need to have a goal in mind. Whether we explicitly present our students with our learning objectives (targets) or use essential questions to point the objectives out in a less direct manner, we all want our students to know what it is they are expected to master. And our assessments—whether they be tests, projects, or something else—need to mirror these objectives. Our students should never be surprised by what is on the test. They don’t need to know the exact questions we’ll be asking, but they should certainly be aware of what skills, information, and processes will be covered. The more they know, the better equipped they will be to prepare themselves for the assessment.

As you think about preparing summative assessments for your students here are some principles to keep in mind:

  • Have you identified for your students the skills, processes, and information sets they are expected to master?
  • Have you identified the types of thinking skills students will be asked to apply (ie: Bloom’s taxonomy)?
  • Have you evaluated the test (or other assessment) to ensure that it does, in fact, measure those objectives and utilize the types of thinking you’ve targeted in a clear and unequivocal way?
  • How have you organized the test (or assessment)? Are similar learning targets being addressed in the same section?
  • Will this test (or other assessment) tell you and the student what information or skills have been mastered and what areas still need more work?

8081867203_7ce422a6f5As you explicitly identifying the specific skills, information and processes that will be assessed, and at what cognitive level, you will be helping more than just your students. You will be providing valuable formative feedback for yourself, and will also be creating a helpful communication tool to use with both students and parents.

Rather than just being a scary end of the unit activity that happens, tests can become helpful learning experiences in and of themselves. They can help students (and parents) measure progress towards a given goal. Of course, for this to happen, it is important that students receive timely and informative feedback on their work. Students who know what they have gotten wrong have a starting place from which to grow. Students who know not only what they have missed, but also what to do to correct the problem are in an even better position, especially if teachers provide specific action steps that can be implemented and then a future opportunity for students to demonstrate progress.

Rather than looking at tests (and other summative assessments) as the final step in a learning sequence, we should look at them as simply another step in the learning cycle. By changing our paradigm, everyone benefits. And as for teaching to the test: by all means, teach away!

Becky Hunsberger
Teacher Education Services

Photo Credits: Exams Etwood via Compfight ccBoy woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc

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