A word about teaching to the test…

It’s testing season here in Michigan, the dawn of a new age! Last fall’s paper and pencil MEAP is replaced with the this spring’s computer-driven M-Step.

And the M-Step is putting a lot of pressure on districts to reconsider what “test readiness” even means. What skills are required of a student who is having to transition from a question like this:

MEAP Grade 8 Practice

to something like this?

MStep Practice Grade 8

The “Performance Task” is another new type of test item. Teachers lead a scripted discussion through a content exploration. Students get time to discuss, explore, ask questions. Then they go off to answer a question based on the experience they just had. This all combines to create a startling amount of new experiences all in the same year.

Preparing educators for this newness was a large chunk of my work as my colleagues and I provided workshops to help explore this testing experience that is new for all of our students. As I had discussions with genuinely and appropriately concerned teachers and administrators, there were a few recurring concerns that bubbled to the surface.

1. What if a student knows the right answer, but has computer/technical skills that prohibit him/her from answering that question correctly (or in a reasonable amount of time)?

2. How are the non-traditional items going to be graded? (Non-traditional… rubric scored items, items with more than one correct answer, the drag-n-drop question like the number line one above, etc.)

Certainly there were lots of other concerns, but these two kept coming back again and again with good reason. We want to make sure that our students are getting recognized for the knowledge and skill they possess. This new test presents a new set of potential barriers.

So, how do you get around those barriers? Well, one way is to teach to the test.

“Teaching to the test” as a phrase is usually not seen as a good thing. Although, I can remember a conversation with a district leader a while back who was quite proud of the fact that curriculum decisions for their math department were based almost solely on what was on the ACT… he refrained from using the term “teaching-to-the-test”.

This pride fits in with recent statement from a colleague. “Teaching to the test is only a bad thing if the test is no good.”

Now, that having been said, there are a lot of people right now in Michigan who are feeling like the M-Step is no good and they might be right. As I write this, we’ve just completed our second day of testing, so I’m going to reserve judgement until we’re more than 48 hours into this new experience.

But regardless, that sample question from above…

MStep Practice Grade 8

… isn’t a ridiculous question. It lends itself to considering if teaching strategically in such a way that students could do that (which is motivated primarily by the fact that a high-stakes, state-level standardized summative assessment is going to ask them to do it) is a bad thing? I would suggest that this is a task that most 8th grade math teachers would want their students to be able to do. Where the conflict arises is when teachers or districts aren’t inclined (or able) to provide exploration or assessment of this skill in a computerized way. The test becomes a motivation to have to change course. So we find ourselves faced with “teaching to the test.”

So, if we’re going to be “teaching to the test” anyway, what situations can we design for our students that while we are probably only doing ten because they will be on the test, are still, in the end, high-quality experiences for the students to have?

One suggestion comes out of this blog post from Fawn Nguyen who is trying to help the students interpret a scoring rubric. That was one of her goals, because her second goal was to help the students focus on a set of skills they will need to be successful on the test they are going to take in May.

The skills she’s referring to: “For them to attend to the same thoroughness and precision in their own solution writing when it’s their turn…”

While Ms. Nguyen is openly “teaching to the test”, that skill she’s highlighting is a valuable one. I encourage you to read the post. The tone of it doesn’t sound like someone who begrudgingly throws test prep items at her students, but rather a teacher who saw an opportunity to weave test prep into an experience that ultimately led to student feedback like this:

I believe this was helpful because when I take the test, I will be more aware of the questions and what is expected of me. I will make sure to always back up my answers with evidence.

I’ve talked to a lot of teachers (math, ELA, social studies) who’ve expressed frustration that their students won’t “always back up their answers with evidence”. Ms. Nguyen provides us an example of how a test prep experience can be used to further broader goals.

And I think, in the end, given the stress and strain that these testing situations put on all of us, it’s nice to see an example that reminds us that teachers still have ability to make decisions that end up as net positives for our students.

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5 thoughts on “A word about teaching to the test…

    • That is an excellent point. Hopefully those writing the grading programs recognize that certain questions have natural precision limitations that are largely unavoidable.

  1. Great blog post, Andrew! I also read Fawn’s blog about having students look at a scoring rubric. Any AP Calculus teacher would be foolish to not be doing the same sort of exercise w/ AP students prior to the AP Exam, especially since you can find previous Free-Response questions on the AP website.

    • I agree. At times, I feel like the frustration over the tests (which is justifiable, let it be said) can cloud our judgement. We gain such a negative view of the tests that we aren’t able to find much energy for creative meaningful prep experiences.

      It helps to be reminded that there are times when we can prepare our students to be successful on tests AND ALSO be running them though good educational experiences.

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