Teachers often cringe in fear at the mention of standardized tests. School districts and individual schools rely on good test scores in order to continue to receive federal money allocated for education. Additionally, many teachers’ salaries are based on how well their students perform on standardized tests which makes a successful outcome even more important (Boser, 2000). The pressure from school districts as well as salary outcomes has placed a great deal of pressure on teachers when it comes to preparing their students to be successful on high stakes tests. Teachers report that they spend more time on test preparation skills than providing authentic learning experiences for their students (Boser, 2000). Further, researchers have attempted to discover how much overlap there is between a classroom curriculum and what is included on standardized tests and have learned that one of the ten studies conducted show that the overlap is a mere five percent (Boser, 2000).
This finding suggests that not only are teachers under a great deal of pressure to teach to the test, but they are actually presenting information to students that is not included on high stakes tests. The entire standardized testing system in the United States is largely unsuccessful in ensuring that national and state standards align with curriculum in order to show accurate results on standardized tests (Boser, 2000). An analysis of the proponents and the opponents of teaching to the test are offered. These analyses will be used to present a comprehensive body of research that discusses the impact that teaching to the test has on the classroom environment with regards to the ability of teachers to teach and the ability of students to learn and retain knowledge.
The term “teaching to the test” has evolved over time to indicate that teachers are abandoning the opportunity to provide students with authentic learning experiences in favor of teaching them specifically what is included on high stakes tests. However, teaching so students will be successful on standardized tests is not a bad idea. The supporters of teaching to the test firmly believe that when teachers teach exactly what is included in curriculum that aligns with national and state standards, students will be prepared. Supporters refer to the No Child Left Behind Act to back their opinions. The No Child Left Behind Act requires public schools to administer standardized tests and report those results (Matthews, 2006). The purpose of the act is to improve education in all public schools by using the test information to allocate funds and make recommendations regarding improvement. Supporters also indicate that teaching to the test does not usually mean that teachers are forcing their students to repeatedly practice the same test questions day after day in an effort to make them memorize all the information they may need to be successful on the test (Matthews, 2006). The teachers who support teaching to the test state that there is no problem with a teacher using a test he or she created when teaching students so utilizing standardized testing the same way is not harmful to students and actually benefits them in the long run. They go on to say that teaching to the test simply means that teachers are preparing students to take the test by teaching them what is on it; they are not helping students ace the test (Matthews, 2006).
Supporters of teaching to the test emphasize that unless a teacher steals a copy of the test, they do not know what is on it to begin with. Therefore, they believe that by teaching to the test they are simply teaching according to national and state standards which dictate what material is eventually included on the test (Matthews, 2006). Teachers who teach to the test report that standardized tests are useful guides so that they can ensure that students are learning what they are supposed to learn which will, in turn, ensure that they are successful on high stakes tests. Finally, supporters of teaching to the test indicate that the very term “teaching to the test” has become so skewed and is automatically seen as negative when, in many cases, it can be quite helpful. They go on to say that no one has a problem with teaching to the standards which is what teaching to the test really is (Matthews, 2006).
In contrast, one of the primary reasons that so many people have a problem with teaching to the test is that it “artificially inflates” test scores so that the test cannot accurately measure the students’ knowledge of what is being tested (Firestone, Monfils, Schorr, 2004). Curriculum experts go one step further to say that teaching to the test reduces both the quality and the quantity of what is taught. This is because the requirements of commercially produced tests replace authentic learning experiences (Firestone, et al, 2004). Further, teaching to the test results in too much time spent learning test taking skills and not enough time spent gaining valuable learning through hands on activities and learning experiences (Firestone, et al, 2004). For example, many teachers spend a great deal of math time teaching students how to be successful at multiple choice questions by eliminating the obviously wrong answers. While this is arguably an important skill, teachers would be wiser to spend class time actually teaching students how to work math problems so they do not have to rely on guessing in order to come up with the correct answer (Firestone, et al, 2004). Finally, teaching to the test is argued to reduce the reliability and validity of the results because it treats students as empty containers waiting to be filled with lists of factual knowledge rather as able participants in their own learning. Teaching to the test does not encourage creativity or intellectual interest and it does not tap into higher level thinking skills. Instead, it simply ensures that students are prepared with a list of facts they are able to recall (Firestone, et al, 2004).
The majority of teachers realize that is an important link between teaching and testing. Assessment is a critical component in analyzing student growth and progress. Therefore, it is also widely accepted that if a teacher does a good job instructing students, then students will do a good job on assessment measures (Popham, 2003). Opponents to teaching to the test hold the opinion that there are other ways of assessing students that should be considered in combination with standardized tests (Popham, 2003). A paper and pencil test is not always the best way to assess student progress but this is the form that standardized tests take. Instead, opponents believe that relying on standardized tests in combination with other student assessment measures will provide a more clear and comprehensive understanding of overall student progress and growth. For example, student generated work portfolios or group reports of experimental projects lend an enormous amount of insight into how well each student understands curricular material (Popham, 2003). Along the same lines, many educators feel that the standards are far too broad to begin with and this causes problems when deciding what to teach in order to ensure that students are successful on high stakes tests. The standards provide teachers with important information about what students need to learn but they do not tell teachers how to teach that material (Popham, 2003). As a result, standardized tests may be inefficient at truly measuring student progress because there is no universal method for teaching national and state standards.
Alfred North Whitehead
Alfred North Whitehead bases his ideas regarding teaching to the test on the notion that education built on inert ideas is useless and harmful (Whitehead, 1967). Inert ideas are ones that are learned without ever being utilized, tested or used in other applications (Whitehead, 1967). He further emphasizes that the curriculum that students are exposed to must be few and important and must be applied in as many areas as possible. At the same time, students must be shown how to experience discovery with a sense of purpose and joy so they are able to apply their knowledge in the present as well as in the future. Essentially, the overall aim of education is that it be useful (Whitehead, 1967). Teaching to the test defies the notion of a useful education because it focuses on cramming a large amount of material into the brains of students without ever giving them the opportunity to learn and make educational discoveries on their own. Teaching to the test, as it is currently defined, takes away chances for students to engage in authentic learning experiences and replaces those with too much time spent learning facts that are meaningless to students because they cannot be applied to the present or the future.
Teaching to the test cannot be considered rhythmic. The principle of a rhythmic education is one that proposes the specific subjects and modes of study should only be presented to students when they have reached the appropriate stage of mental development (Whitehead, 1967). This presents an obvious discourse to teaching to the test because the fundamental basis of standardized tests is grade level competence. Standardized tests do not take into account the individual learning differences of each student nor do they realize that all students are not at the appropriate stage of mental development required to be successful on the tests (Whitehead, 1967). A rhythmic education ensures that students learn and master pre resequite skills before going to other material (Whitehead, 1967). Again, teaching to the test makes the incorrect assumption that all students perform at identical stages of mental development and gear instruction accordingly. However, students who are not at the appropriate stage of mental development do not stand a chance at passing such an assessment measure. Therefore, it can be argued that if teachings teach rhythmically, they will also ensure that students are learning what is necessary through activities that meet the needs of the present rather than focus on the needs of the future (Whitehead, 1967).
Teaching to the test kills the sense of vitality that is necessary for an exceptional education. Teaching to the test results in the presentation of small facts associated with a large number of educational subjects (Whitehead, 1967). Instead of allowing students of focus on educational material in such a way that allows them to gain an in depth picture of the topic, teaching to the test jumps back and forth among subjects in such a way that guarantees that students do not attach any type of meaning to what they are learning. In other words, any sense of vitality is lost as students are not allowed the opportunity to discover new things and learn to think for themselves (Whitehead, 1967). It certainly takes an important part of the educational process away from students when they are forced to rote memorize lists of facts rather than engage in authentic learning experiences that will ensure their ability to make connections and find meaning in their learning.
Similarly, teaching to the test cannot be considered a through way to educate young children. Just as vitality is lost with the presentation of small facts across a large variety of subjects, any sense of thoroughness is lost as well (Whitehead, 1967). When students are not given adequate time to truly learn and discover a specific topic they are not being provided with an exceptional education. Teaching to the test takes this valuable learning time away from students because they are spending too much time learning how to take a test rather. When students receive thorough exposure to a topic they are much more likely to make connections and find meaning which will inevitably lead to high test scores. This leads to a lack of empowerment on the part of the students (Whitehead, 1967). Students who are not given time to make their own educational discoveries are not students empowered to take control of their own education (Whitehead, 1967). Teaching to the test contributes to a lack of empowerment because it tells students exactly what they need to know and how they should learn it. Teaching to the test does not provide time for students to become actively engaged in the curricular material they are studying because too much time is spent memorizing facts and learning the specifics of taking a paper and pencil test. Further, teaching to the test is more concerned with the future instead of the present. Students who are able to focus on the present are more successful in the future (Whitehead, 1967). Therefore, students who are empowered to learn in the present based on present day stages of mental development are also the students who are eventually more successful in the long term.
Teaching to the test does not support the idea of student development of style. Again, a classroom of students is comprised of a group of children who are each at a different stage of mental development (Whitehead, 1967). Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect that each of these students learns in the same way. Teaching to the test assumes just that. Standardized tests are designed to assess all students in the same exact way. Individual stages of mental development are not considered in the outcome of high stakes tests. It seems that allowing each student to rely on the strengths of their individual stage of mental development will not only provide authentic learning experiences for students but it will also ensure that students are working on their weaknesses in such a way that will bring about better long term results (Whitehead, 1967). In other words, students who are able to learn according to their individual stage of mental development are more likely to find learning meaningful which will result in an obvious progression with regards to movement across those mental development stages.
John Dewey compares education to the distinction between living and inanimate objects (Dewey, 1916). The primary difference between the two is that a living object has the capacity to grow and change while the inanimate object will remain the same forever. Further, when a living being is restricted by a superior force it begins to lose its identity (Dewey, 1916). However, if a living thing is encouraged and allowed to thrive it well continue the process of self renewal and survival (Dewey, 1916). This notion can be compared to the idea of teaching to the test. When students are restricted by a superior force such as teaching to the test, they are also restricted in their capacity to renew themselves through the gaining of new knowledge. In this way, education is a necessity in life and students should have access to the kind of education that does not restrict their ability to learn and grow (Dewey, 1916).
Teaching to the test eliminates the active part of education that is so crucial for self renewal. The ability to self renew comes from the opportunity to receive the power to grow. Further, growth is not something that teachers can give to students; it is something they must do on their own through the use of authentic educational experiences (Dewey, 1916). In other words, education must be an active process if there is any hope for students to realize their potential for growth. John Dewey is perhaps most famous for his belief that education must be an active process whereby students are actively engaged in the material they are learning. The experiences students have are the most important element towards the application of an education (Dewey, 1916). When students engage in learning experiences that focus on teaching to the test they are not being given the chance to truly experience education. At the same time, teachers are not able to be effective in the long term if they are forced to teach to the test in order to ensure that their school receive adequate funding or in order to maintain a decent salary. However, if teachers were able to pursue the type of instructional strategies that truly allowed students to experience their education then test scores would improve and teachers could rest assured that their classroom activities were meaningful for students.
Education must also be continuous and interactive in order to ensure that it has meaning to students. To this end, there are three kinds of classroom instruction outlined by Dewey. The first treats each lesson as an independent whole. The second makes students utilize previous learning in order to gain new understandings. The third are out of school experiences that draw upon what a student learns in the classroom (Dewey, 1916). The first method does not allow for interactive and continuous education because the subjects do not blend together to form one cohesive education. The second is a better approach but still does not ensure the desired results of interactive and continuous education. Finally, the third model is highly useful because it allows students to apply their learning to the real world and continue to engage in education after they have left the classroom. However, this model is not realistic in the classroom because the idea behind it is that students continue to learn when they leave school (Dewey, 1916). Teaching to the test eliminates the idea of a continuous and interactive education because the learning that is occurring is isolated from other educational experiences in such a way that they cannot be blended together to form a cohesive approach to education. Further, teachers lose the opportunity to prepare their students for the future because there is not enough time to develop and implement creative and engaging lesson plans because there is so much emphasis placed on doing well on the tests.
Obviously American society has come to a point where it demands accountability and in this way high stakes testing is a socially desirable function. At the same time, there are very few supporters of teaching to the test as it is currently defined. To return to an earlier concept, self renewal is the ultimate goal of education and society continues to thrive when students are taught how to renew themselves (Dewey, 1916). Therefore, education must take the form of a nurturing, fostering and cultivating process in order to truly serve the goal of society (Dewey, 1916). The way that the growth of students is nurtured, fostered and cultivated is the most important aspect of education. Anyone can simply bring a child up but it takes true dedication to bring up children who are actively engaged in their learning and understand how to apply their education to their future (Dewey, 1916). Teaching to the test originally had the goal of making sure that students were well prepared to take standardized tests. Teachers had noble intentions when they began incorporating this type of learning into the classroom. However, teaching to the test does not truly meet societal expectations regarding education because it has been shown to not have a real and lasting impact on the long term outcomes of standardized testing.
Teaching to the test does not make good use of the classroom environment nor is there any scientific approach to its use. The environment refers to the “surroundings which encompass a person” (Dewey, 1916) but it also refers to the continuity of those surroundings (Dewey, 1916). In this way, the environment can promote or hinder the overall success of a living being. Scientifically speaking, the environment is similar to a habitat. When a living being is able to adapt to and survive in their surroundings then they are said be successful (Dewey, 1916). There is no adaptation when it comes to teaching to the test. As stated before, teaching to the test isolates the learning experiences into small bits of knowledge that cannot blend together to provide an in depth approach to education. Therefore, teaching to the test does not promote the type of classroom environment that promotes and enhances learning opportunities. Teachers are not able to help their students adapt to the learning process because too much time is spent teaching them how to take tests rather than how to learn. Similarly, students are not shown how to use their education to continue to be successful in the future because they spend too much time rote memorizing facts in order to pass a standardized test. It must be said again: if teachers were given the chance to provide authentic learning experiences to students (Dewey, 1916) then the problem of accountability would be virtually nonexistent. Authentic learning experiences would ensure that teachers were using their skills and knowledge to provide a high quality education to each child and this would b proven through the use of standardized testing, without the need to teach to the test.
John Dewey states that education is a formation of the mind that is possible through the making connections of the external subject matter (1916). Teaching to the test takes a more traditional approach to education in that it pours as much knowledge as possible into the student container. However, a more progressive approach to education suggests that a living being who is actively participating in his or her environment has the best chance of receiving a high quality education that will be evident in the long term (Dewey, 1916). Teaching to the test eliminates active engagement on the part of the teacher as well as the student. Teachers who are not permitted to become actively engaged in the subject matter they teach as well as with individual students stand little chance of finding any reward in their chosen career. Teaching to the test takes the joy of teaching right out of the hearts of teachers. Similarly, students who are not actively engaged in the subject matter have little chance of gaining and retaining knowledge that is useful and applicable. Teaching to the test takes all the joy of learning away from students because it is more concerned with testing outcomes than with real actual learning.
Van Cleve Morris
Existentialism refers to the entire human being. This is applicable in education because existentialism is concerned student ability to think but also with student ability to feel, act and live in a specific environment. The notion of existentialism suggests that students enter school unsure of what to think and unsure of how to learn and discover on their own. It is the job of school and education to help students make sense of the world around them in order to be successful in life. Therefore, “existentialism is a theory of individual meaning” (Morris, 1966). Despite the fact that this is a relatively old book, the idea of existentialism is certainly applicable to current American school classrooms. It is important to analyze the way that teachers teach and the way students learn in order to create an environment where teachers are able to rely on their creativity to create and implement appropriate, rewarding and engaging learning opportunities for their students.
Teaching to the test eliminates choice from the classroom. Teachers are not able to choose the activities that will best enable their individual group of students to learn. Instead, they are increasingly forced to rely on a set of sample test questions to guide their teaching. Similarly, students no longer have any voice in what they learn or how they learn. They are also forced to adhere to learning styles dictated by a set of sample test questions. American schools are no closer to solving the problem of disassociation with education than they were decades ago (Morris, 1966). There is a large body of research that suggest how important curriculum is as well as how important it is to teach students the problem solving tools necessary to be successful at school as well as in life. Students are not required to become active participants in their own education because they are not allowed the choice either way. They are told what they need to know and how they are to learn it and there is no thought given to how well students could achieve if their educational needs went beyond rote memorization of facts that will appear on a standardized test (Morris, 1966).
Similarly, teaching to the test eliminates self expression and age appropriateness of curricular material. When students are spending so much time learning how to take a test they are not being given enough time to learn how to make their own discoveries and express their own interests and findings. Further, many classrooms that rely on teaching to the test do not take into account the age appropriateness of such test questions. Teachers are told what level students need to perform at and set them about the task of pouring that information into the brains of students. At the same time, teaching to the test does not encourage responsibility because it allows everyone to place the blame for failing schools on someone else. Teachers are blamed and their salaries are reduced, students are blamed for not taking their education seriously, it goes on and on (Morris, 1966). Ultimately, teaching to the test stifles student choice and self expression because it is often not age appropriate and does not encourage students or teachers to take responsibility for the state of education in America.
It is recommended that teaching to the test be eliminated in classrooms and replaced with the reliance on authentic learning experiences based on national and state standards. This does not mean that students should not be taught how to take the test but it does mean that teachers should no longer rely on sample test questions as a guide for instruction. The current model of standardized tests relies on rote memorization for success (Yeh, 2001). The continuation of focus on rote memorization must be stopped so that students are able to engage in critical thinking skills that will enable them to learn and discover on their own in such a way that guarantees success on high stakes tests (Yeh, 2001). It is highly unlikely that standardized tests will be replaced with other more useful forms of student assessment any time in the near future so it is more important to focus on revising current tests in order to allow teachers time to focus on higher level thinking skills that will better serve students in the long term (Yeh, 2001). In this way, the most obvious way to reform education and eliminate teaching to the test is to create better tests (Yeh, 2001). This means that future standardized tests must include the use of higher level and critical thinking skills rather than rote memorization.
If the test were to be revised as recommended, teaching to the test may still exist but at the very least it would focus on the thinking skills of students rather than a universal approach to ensuring that students are performing at grade level. The fact that poor performance on standardized tests is still such a hot issue in America suggests that the current method of teaching to the test is simply not working. However, it seems highly likely that eliminating rote memorization tasks on standardized tests will also eliminate teaching to the test because teachers would have the freedom to develop and implement creative lesson plans that would focus on the interests and needs of students in order to promote higher retention levels and a better chance for long term success.
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