Teaching to the Test... Does it work?

    Posted by Hannah Thompson on September 15, 2022

    teaching to the test

    What is teaching to the test? 


    Teaching to the test means using a technique called item-teaching, where teachers use lookalikes or clones of test questions to work on a concept out of context. This teaches small pieces of information that teachers expect students to see on a standardized test. 

    Why do teachers use item-teaching?


    No Child Left Behind stressed the importance of making sure every student was meeting expectations. Unfortunately, it also brought an onslaught of standardized tests, and consequences for schools with lower scores or struggling students. 


    Pressure for students to perform well on these standardized tests may prompt teachers to focus on information they know will be on the test, rather than teaching the regular curriculum. The problem occurs when preparation for testing interferes with normal learning. 


    Problems Teaching to the Test Causes


      The most obvious problem with teaching to the test is that it interferes with the time spent in the classroom. Not only are children missing out on learning to take these exams, but now the week leading up to those exams is also filled with specialized instruction that doesn’t always improve test scores the way it is meant to. 


    Item-teaching misrepresents the understanding that students have of a topic, and invalidates the test scores of those students. Suppose students are expected to learn 300 vocabulary words in a year, and will be tested on 30 random words from those 300. If a teacher knows which 30 words the students will be tested on, and drills only those 30 with her students, then a student who gets all 30 right looks like they know every word, while only knowing 10% of the material. 


    Information that a student memorizes is not necessarily information that they understand, especially if the information has no context. A student who memorizes word problems may still perform poorly when the same math operations are set up as an equation rather than a sentence. 

    Does Item-Teaching work? 

    Even short term reliance on teaching to the test is ineffective. Although students do need to be familiar with test format, teaching class content normally produces the best scores from students. These tests are designed to reflect what a student learns in a year, which means changing the learning to fit the test is counterproductive. 

    Students show standardized testing scores up to 20% higher when teachers use methods to teach math that mimic real world situations. These results reflect the teacher, not the performance level that a student was thought to be at. Complete understanding of a topic comes from context and examples, which is why item-teaching doesn’t work. 


    The best thing for your child is learning the same topics in their normal environment, with context for their examples, and reviewing these concepts at home. 


    Topics: Standardized Testing, Better Teaching, Educators, Academic Excellence, Academic Standards, Academic Success, Better Education, Back to School, American Math

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