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Bruno: Teaching Content Vs. "Teaching To The Test"

Taming-the-TestThe Obama administration has been taking a lot of flak - most recently from Jon Stewart - for criticizing "teaching to the test" while simultaneously pushing policies that are arguably going to encourage exactly that sort of behavior by teachers and school officials.

I think it's fair enough to blame President Obama to the extent that his policies promote ineffective instruction.  At the same time, though, the phrase "teaching to the test" masks a lot of variability in what educators are actually doing to improve their scores, and it's not always obvious that when schools "teach to the test" they're helping themselves at all.

Take curriculum narrowing, for example. On the one hand, it seems clear that many schools have reduced time spent on other subjects to focus on reading and math, and that this is probably not good in the long run for affected students. (Although it's worth noting that this seems to be less of an issue at the high school level.) On the other hand, is this curriculum narrowing even a particularly good way to improve reading scores?  Given how important a wide breadth of content knowledge is to reading comprehension, and how little value there seems to be in lengthy "reading comprehension strategy" instruction, I would argue that it probably is not.

Similarly, there are reasons to be skeptical about the effectiveness of spending significant instructional time on "test-taking strategies". It's probably helpful for students to be familiar with the structure of a test, even if only to improve its validity, but presumably the most helpful thing for students will be knowing the content being tested. Apart from a few short lessons prior to our state test in May I spend no time whatever teaching test-taking strategies to my science students because I figure that they will get better scores anyway if I spend my all-too-precious instructional minutes just teaching the content laid out in our science standards.

In other words, a lot of "teaching to the test" strikes me as only questionably effective even as a means of improving test scores. (I'd like to see more research on this, although this Gates Foundation report offers some circumstantial support for my position.) To the extent that educators are responding to even perverse incentives in counterproductive ways, I think there's plenty of blame to go around. - PB (@MrPABruno) (Image source)


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I'm sure that's the way it looks to a science teacher.

Great points, all. In schools that succeed despite whatever odds - high minority, high poverty, high ELL - teachers are NOT teaching to the test. They are expanding kids' worlds, making sure they have a broad range of experiences, giving them practice and exposure to lots and lots of content. Teaching to the test is not the "fault" of No Child Left Behind. It is a bad and ineffective reaction.

As a fourth grade teacher I think of "teaching to the test" in a very personal everyday manner and I believe that if/when my job security is greatly impacted by standardized test scores, I would need to make some big changes to the work in my classroom. Let's just consider writer's workshop - one change I would make would be to significantly decrease the creative writing my students do - much more emphasis would be responsive writing. Writing of poetry is simply not tested and I certainly would not risk the time we currently use to let students write in more creative ways. Certainly learning to write poetry has a long, trailing impact on general knowledge - but I would not have time to spend on such convoluted ways to improve scores - I would be looking for that ole "low hanging fruit." And that fruit would be teaching students to do a good job on responsive, five paragraph essay, structured writing. I am know from past experience that spending a considerable amount of time on such instruction can and does bring forth some strong test results - of course it is cruel and evil to greatly limit student writing instruction in this way, and my students would hate it and I would hate it and parents would hate it - but it would reap test rewards. I could go on and talk about how I would refocus other curriculum areas that would restrict content in a goal to grab time for areas that reap the best test impact.... but this box is small...

This does seem to be a never ending argument. What many schools need to do to increase reading skills is get more books in the schools and homes. And why doesn’t anyone ever talk about teacher training in the universities being a problem. If the training was ever improved we would not have to worry about what type of policies the government implements because we would have more knowledgeable teachers in the front lines!

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