Is Teaching to the Test Bad Instruction?

By David Lariviere

Well, it depends.

When well-meaning federal programs like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top were enacted, there were a lot of “unintended consequences,” as ETS’s Randy Bennett describes them, for teachers and students.

Race to the Top, an initiative by the Obama Administration, provided states with a lot of money with the stipulation they use test scores as a factor in teacher evaluation, promotion, retention and tenure. “The unintended but understandable consequence was that teachers spent time teaching kids the formats, content, design and layout of the tests to an excessive degree,” explains Bennett, who holds the Norman O. Frederiksen Chair in Assessment Innovation at ETS.

Teaching to the test may not be bad if the test assesses what you want it to, as long as you recognize that there are other areas that also may be valid and important

~ Joanna Gorin, Vice President of Research, ETS

And “teaching to the test” became a national catchphrase as an indictment of assessments and the legislation that created them.

“The practice of teaching to the test resulted in teaching to a narrow subset of the standards, rather than teaching kids to be able to do the full range of things the standards describe,” says Bennett.

Some teachers would go to great lengths to make sure their students were prepared for the test questions.  ETS Associate Research Scientist and former math teacher Heather Howell described what one teacher she knew did. “If you’re pulling tests for the last 10 years, creating your own database, figuring out whether there’s a 30 percent probability that a question will appear and cutting off everything below that because it’s not worth your time to teach those areas, then you are using your skills in the wrong way as a teacher,” she stated.

The danger, in Bennett’s view, is not giving children everything they need to best develop. “One way to think of it is in terms of narrowness. If it’s too concentrated a focus, you will omit too many important things,” he says. “If a test is focusing only on argumentative essays and you as a teacher only focus on them, then you haven’t taught your students other kinds of writing that may also be important.”

ETS’s Vice President of Research Joanna Gorin says there are many reasons why standardized testing is seen as being too narrow in measuring student learning. “Do we focus too much on reading, writing and math and not enough on science, creativity and the arts? It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg situation, because how much of the narrowing started happening because of the increased emphasis on tests?”

Another negative result of teaching to the test is obtaining a false measurement. In a research paper published in 2017, Bennett wrote, “Teaching to the particular sample of questions included on a test may increase test performance but not increase performance in the larger domain. Teaching to particular test content — the test items themselves — would consequently be poor instructional practice.”

Gorin says ETS makes tests that are reflective of what people believe is important to learn and that do a fair, unbiased job of measuring that learning. Teaching to the test may not be bad if the test assesses what you want it to, as long as you recognize that there are other areas that also may be valid and important, she adds.

In 2015, when the Obama Administration reauthorized NCLB, it created the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which dropped the requirement that test scores be used to evaluate educators. At least seven states have either stopped or reduced the practice since then. “I didn’t think holding the schools accountable was the problem,” says Bennett. “The problem was being punitive as opposed to finding ways to provide proper incentives for teachers.”

While Gorin is uncertain whether ESSA will alleviate pressure on teachers, she hopes that in the future greater emphasis is placed on supporting the teaching profession. “When we look at teachers, we have to ask, ‘Did they know about good types of instruction, did they understand how to deal with different kids’ needs, and did they use good decision making in their approach?’ Honestly, I think that’s the best we can do.”

And an emphasis on teacher support goes well beyond the classroom. “We have to shift the accountability lens, and it’s going to take leaders at the state level to take risks and to think about this issue very differently,” Gorin says.

So is teaching to the test a bad thing? Yes and no. Because a test can only cover a subset of the standards in both the content and format, if a teacher spends too much time teaching to that subset, he or she is neglecting the teaching of other standards or other content and formats that might be relevant.

On the other hand, if assessments are aligned to the standards and teachers are instructing to the depth and breadth of the standards, then teaching to the test some of the time can be a good thing.