Teaching to the Test
by Donna Schoenkopf
This is a story about words.
It is a story that tries, in its own limited way because of the vagaries of language, to illustrate how we, and I do mean all of us, assume we know what the other person is talking about. It is about how we label things and others really don’t have a clue as to what we’re talking about. For example, I call myself a communist, and I just know the person I tell this to will be assuming things about me that aren’t true. I am a communist with a small “c” and believe that workers should own the business they work in. Now that doesn’t sound so scary, does it? I am also an atheist, but people know that I love Jesus and try to follow his teachings.
That whole preamble is a way to introduce the concept of why I think “teaching to the test” is not only okay, but something every single teacher—good, bad, or indifferent—does.
Our story begines in Nancy’s living room, where I was enjoying being half stewed (or maybe more) on a marbiggie (definition: the opposite of a martini), talking to my old high school chums. The subject of teaching came up.
I was asked how I got high test scores from my students. Before I could answer, John, with a big smile on his face, said, “By teaching to the test!” A look of concern came over the face of his wife, a retired principal.
I can understand her reaction. I know what the consensus is about teaching to the test. The consensus is that it’s bad to teach to the test, that it’s not really teaching, that it doesn’t impart true understanding or real knowledge, and that it’s drill, baby, drill.
I knew all this when I replied, “Yes, I do teach to the test. Absolutely.”
I never explained my definition of “teaching to the test.” I wasn’t in any shape to explain anything after not one, but two, marbiggies. But even without them under my belt I probably wouldn’t have defined anything, because I don’t explain my controversial statements unless I’m asked. My failure to explain is a kind of mischievous desire to shock, which I always hope will strike up a conversation when the other person asks me something about the subject and allows me to wax eloquent, thereby making me seem like a genius. I have begun to realize that people usually don’t take the bait. They think they know what I mean, when I’m virtually certain that they don’t. A lose-lose situation. You would think I would know better.
So I’m gonna ’splain my idea of teaching to the test to you in this piece, Gentle Readers.
I think that the fact that I came into teaching at the ripe old age of forty-five has something to do with my concept of teaching to the test. I grew up with teachers who explained stuff to you and then they tested you on it. Or they gave you a spelling list or vocabulary words or multiplication problems or whatever, and tested you at the end of the week. Isn’t that teaching to the test? If you were a good listener or a good observer, you got a good grade. If you were bored, couldn’t follow along, were messin’ around with your pals, you probably didn’t do as well.
But if your teacher cared about you and could read your face and see that you weren’t getting it and had some talent with drama or comedy or evocative language, she/he would go over it again, performing a different tap dance, using a more entertaining method, working magic so you would get it. I considered my students’ failures my own. My ego and my love of students made it impossible for me let a student fail, so I tap danced as fast as I could.
That, to me, is teaching to the test.
I am also aware of the philosophy of not explaining it to a student, of giving the barest information about the thing to be learned and then making the poor kid figure it out for himself. I cannot tell you how that rankles me. I’ve had a few teachers in my lifetime who used that method and I am here to testify that that is why I was no good at algebra until I finally had a teacher in my middle age college years who explained concepts to me. Then I got it. That teacher taught to the test. That teacher really was an excellent teacher, in my humble opinion. To this day I have gratitude in my heart for her. She was a young Scandinavian woman who showed me that math was a language and made me, if I do say so myself, a fabulous math teacher on my own.
A little story:
So I had explained to my third grade class that math was a language and had told some stories about that idea. I saw one of my students ruminating at his desk. He raised his hand and said, “So the equal sign is a state of being verb, isn’t it Mrs. Schoenkopf?”
How about that, Ladies and Gentlemen. How about that?
With all of the above in mind, I must point out that there are major differences (as well as similarities) in teaching elementary students compared to teaching high school students.
You see, elementary school is about acquiring skills. How to hold a pencil. How to put sounds of letters together to form words. What place value means in math. How to make a word more meaningful by adding adjectives and adverbs. How to ... how to ... how to. Skills. It’s like learning how to bake a cake. First you mix together flour and sugar and eggs and milk and spices and then you put it in a greased pan and then you bake it in a 350 degree oven for an hour and Presto! A cake.
High school is about how to take the skills learned in earlier grades and use them in meaningful, powerful ways. Write a persuasive essay. Solve a complex math problem. Compare systems of government. Now that you’ve learned to bake a cake, you can go into what the thermodynamics and the chemistry are and figure out how to create a new and different, personal cake that shows that you understand the deepest meaning of cake baking.
Now this isn’t to say that elementary students shouldn’t be creating and understanding on a deeper level than just learning by rote. They should be doing that. In fact, the deeper a student understands the skill they’re supposed to be acquiring, the longer and better that knowledge stays in their brains. Telling them “why” is great for creating scaffolding in the brain on which to hang knowledge. If a doctor tells you why you are taking a certain medicine, you will remember it better than if he doesn’t explain. When my mother told me why I should clean from top to bottom instead of the reverse, I never forgot it. Creating connections in brains leads to more connections, which leads to intensified knowledge. Sort of like the rich getting richer. The more you learn, the more you’re able to learn. I would tell my students that the more they knew, the more they would learn, because everything they learned would be something to hang new ideas on. That’s teaching to the test.
Time is limited and goes fast in school. Our educational system has way more concepts than other countries (e.g. there are seven third grade math concepts in Japan compared with thirty-something in California). And, as I’ve said before, it’s impossible to teach them all. In fact, only part of the curriculum is tested because it literally is impossible to test everything. After a teacher has had some experience, he/she knows which parts of the curriculum will be tested. Yes, teachers teach the whole curriculum (or as close as possible), but a smart teacher will emphasize the parts of the curriculum that are going to be tested. And that is teaching to the test, too.
If a teacher knows that subject/verb agreement is a big deal on the standardized test, they make sure their students know that concept. If they know that parts of the curriculum are not tested, they don’t take as much time on those concepts.
I have never skipped any part of a curriculum. But I have emphasized some parts more than others. I have also emphasized parts of the curriculum that a student needs in order to understand other parts of the curriculum.
Teaching to the test. Misunderstood. Maligned. Stigmatized.
And in my humble opinion, the right thing to do.