Test to the Teach

September 28th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

For those of you who follow my education-related posts (here is a primer), you know I’m no fan of testing in public schools as it is currently conceived and used. In my view, the cart is firmly before the horse, where the horse of quality education is being pulled by the cart of testing rather than the more appropriate other way around. My concerns are myriad:

  • It causes schools to “teach to the test,” meaning teachers devote most of their time to preparing students to pass tests rather than educating them;
  • Teaching to the test causes a narrowing of the curriculum that neglects other essential subjects beyond those of reading and math that are the focus of testing;
  • The current tests don’t measure important criteria such as motivation, life skills, critical or abstract thinking, creativity, and decision making;
  • Using test scores to evaluate teachers ignores the at-best uncertain results of the “value added” benefits of teachers to student learning (though the idea does have potential);
  • Teachers, schools, and states are motivated to game the system (e.g., lower standards, cherry picking data, cheating) to ensure federal funding;
  • Testing sucks the joy out of both teaching and learning;
  • Ultimately, test scores have become the end-all, be-all of public education reform rather than just a tool to assess the quality of public education.

But what would happen if schools were to “test to the teach?” In other words, use testing as a means of assessing how well students are learning the curriculum that is being taught to them by their teachers (rather than the curriculum being comprised of what is needed to pass the tests). In fact, as Susan Engel, a noted education researcher, suggests, tests could be developed to measure most everything that students learn, both in terms of subjects (e.g., history, science, and vocabulary) and life skills (e.g., abstract thinking and problem solving). And, the results of these tests could be far more useful tools for improving the quality of education and closing the achievement gap than the current misguided use of testing.

Educators agree that testing has value when it serves a positive function in improving children’s educational experiences:

  • Tests must reflect and assess the current school curriculum, not the other way around;
  • Tests need to measure a wide range of knowledge and skill sets that are necessary for children to be prepared for future education, career, and responsible citizenry;
  • Tests should be used to assess individual students’ progress and offer information to teachers on ways they can improve;
  • Tests must be used as a measure of the more appropriate and important outcome goal of better educated students.

What’s preventing the U.S. from using testing to actually advance our public education goals? How about expediency, in a culture that looks for quick fixes and the path of least resistance. Or, short-sightedness, where the politicians who legislate public education reform are more interested in political theater and campaign contributions than substantial solutions. Or, a disconnect between what researchers and teachers have demonstrated to work and what politicians and school bureaucrats want to believe will work. Or, vested interests, such as said politicians and school bureaucrats, teachers’ unions, testing companies, and textbook publishers, who profit most from maintaining the status quo. All of these forces create an inertia (think trying to change the trajectory of an asteroid hurtling through space) that is all but impossible to change.

The sad thing is that those who suffer the most, namely, our children, have no say in the matter at all and those who advocate for them have no power to have a say.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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3 Responses to “Test to the Teach”

  1. d |

    I agree with you completely,Dr.Jim. Seems kids spend all their time studying for these tests, and they are so stressed over them. They feel their whole future depends on this stupid test,and maybe,it does. The results say that using these scores to pay teachers, does not improve the quality of our teachers and I think, it ruins real learning. Somehow,even the worst students,miraculously,pass these tests,too. Wonder what’s up with that?
    Whatever happened to I.Q. tests,while we are on the subject of tests? I,thought they were useful tools,but the pressure was not on,we didn’t even study for them,and there was no failing.

  2. Tom Carter |

    I generally support what you’re saying, but it seems to me that testing is necessary to measure achievement and discriminate among students as to levels of performance.

    When you say, “The current tests don’t measure important criteria such as motivation, life skills, critical or abstract thinking, creativity, and decision making…” the evident problem is that these things are largely untestable except generally through IQ tests and psychometric measurements like MBTI. Those are useful, too, so why not have them in combination with tests of knowledge in critical skills like reading, writing, and math? The only alternative is to revert to the failed touchy-feely approach of the last century, where we worried more about self-esteem and social issues than about real education.

    There’s another important issue here that comes down to who’s in charge of education. We already know that adding money doesn’t have much effect in terms of improving student performance, so why do we need the federal government throwing money at schools — with strings attached that reflect political and ideological agendas? The federal government out to butt out of education, and states and localities ought to regain full control.

    Regardless of anything else, we have to have some way of knowing that children who graduate from high school have actually learned something and can function in the world in real jobs. We’re making some progress in that regard with testing, reducing or eliminating social promotion through the grades, etc. That progress needs to continue.

  3. drjim |

    @Tom: I totally agree that we need testing to evaluate students, but it should reflect not drive the curriculum. Students shouldn’t need to do much more than learn the curriculum to perform well.

    I do believe that teaching life skills (not touchy-feely stuff, but practical skills) is necessary because it is not knowledge alone that leads to success, but things like hard work, time management, organizational skills, etc.

    @d: IQ tests lose their predictive ability as children age and through adulthood. The single greatest predictor of future success is the number of hours people put in. Of course, brains help too!

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