Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

'Teaching To The Test': A Problem Worth Fixing? Or Not A Problem At All?

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

The sign outside a Greene County school encourages students as ISTEP+ testing gets underway.

There’s an oft-repeated critique of the education policy overhaul Indiana’s seen in recent years.

An increased emphasis on exam scores, the line goes, has created a “one-size-fits-all accountability system [that] pressures school districts to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching to the test” — a charge many testing supporters call unfair.

One scholar at a think tank that generally supports the increased testing says it’s time to address the claims of the “typical anti-test crowd” head-on.

“While some of these claims are probably overblown, many of them are true,” writes Morgan Polikoff on the Fordham Institute’s Common Core Watch:

Our failure to evolve NCLB and its accountability policies has led to a host of negative unintended consequences, including the aforementioned, the myopic focus on “bubble kids” just below the proficiency cut, and the endless gaming of state tests. But what too few leaders seem willing to admit is that these problems are eminently fixable. Even more importantly, they are worth fixing. While many would have us believe that there is no value in standards- and accountability-driven reform, the reality is this: In spite of poor policy design and implementation, the vast majority of the high-quality research on standards and accountability policies in general and NCLB in particular finds they’ve had some positive intended consequences. Chiefly, kids are actually learning more.

(Polikoff is specifically addressing the federal accountability requirements spelled out in the No Child Left Behind law. As lawmakers debate changes to the law, the Obama administration has given many states — including Indiana — waivers from NCLB’s requirements. In that context, Polikoff argues for changes to states’ school accountability systems.)

The “anti-testing crowd,” as Polikoff refers to it, has recently scored what it sees as a major win: lawmakers in Texas — where particularly vocal opposition to the state’s high-stakes exams has emerged — announced they’re considering scaling back their testing regimen.

But those who support testing say educators or parents frustrated by “teaching to the test” are misdirecting their frustration toward the exams when they should be asking tough questions of administrators.

“When school and system leaders fail to rigorously evaluate staff, spend dollars cost-effectively, or push the boundaries of the possible, reformers may decide they have to compel leaders to do these things,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess says.

As a document posted on the Indiana Department of Education’s website (during Tony Bennett’s administration) reads:

As long as the tests actually test the skills and content we want students to learn and know, “teaching to the test” should not be considered taboo. In fact, we should encourage teachers to help students meet the state standards and learn the content we believe will be fundamental to success in life.

But in an effort to hold administrators accountable, skeptics worry “teaching to the test” is actually harming students.

Standardized tests “do not measure the ability to think deeply or creatively in any field. Their use encourages a narrowed curriculum, outdated methods of instruction, and harmful practices such as grade retention and tracking,” writes FairTest, an advocacy group.

“We know that standardized tests are useful for only one thing: testing the content included in the test,” blogs Stu Bloom.


  • inteach

    Teaching to the test is rampant, specifically in low performing schools.

    It’s education’s dirty, little secret.

    • Matt Richmond

      Considering I think I read something about this every other day, it’s hardly a “dirty, little secret.” It has to be one of the most talked-about issues in education today. As Morgan mentioned, however, fixing the problem never seems to be a part of that conversation. It seems to always be a “yes” or “no.”

      Imagine if we ran all public policy that way?

      Should we help poor people? “Yes, give them everything for free so they don’t have to work a day of their lives.” “No, let them starve.”

      Should we have a military? “Yes, and nuke China while we’re at it.” “No, leave our borders unguarded.”

      Should we have self-defense laws, “Yes, if someone looks at you wrong, blow his head off!” “No, if someone has invaded your house and is running after your kid with a machete, call 911. No exceptions.”

      Maybe we should find ways to make those institutions and rules work well, rather than doing them wrong or choosing just not to do them? Especially when they have clear benefits?

      Or not.

      • inteach


  • Cindi Pastore

    If I am reading the study cited correctly, what it is saying is that -in that study, (and that study only, mind you) student test scores (on Math only) increased, due to changes that schools made in response to accountability measures. Am I understanding that correctly? And if so, here is my follow-up question: Can you really say that students have learned more, or have they just learned how to answer those specific kinds of questions better? Do you understand what I’m getting at here? That when all the focus or a lot of focus is put on raising tests scores in a certain area, grade, or level, a lot of other things will likely have to give. So maybe they have learned these particular things a little better, but they are likely at the sacrifice of something else. Things such as Art, Music, P.E. etc. or even a broader or more in-depth understanding of the same subject matter may have decreased because of the amount of focus put on getting the test scores in this one area. So can we really say they have learned more? Or can we just say they have gotten more correct answers on this test? And can we really say that these ends, justify both the means and the other ends?
    Also, have you seen this? Do we really think that all this testing is likely to help with this problem? Maybe someone should do a study to see what helps with developing these abilities. Or even better, perhaps someone ought to ask an educator what would help develop these kinds of skills. I can almost guarantee you that you won’t find out that the answer is testing from either research or experience.

  • Morgan Polikoff

    Hi Cindi, There are actually 5 studies cited there (one per bolded word). And there are many more that I haven’t cited. In general the literature is pretty consistent that there have been some gains in achievement, especially in mathematics, as a result of accountability policies. These studies have often found that these gains also hold in subjects that aren’t used for accountability and on low-stakes assessments that teachers don’t “teach to.” Click through the five studies and if you want, I can provide more.

    As for the link about creativity and common sense, this is one of those arguments that business leaders have been making since the dawn of time. Frankly I don’t believe it. But supposing I did believe it … So far as I know, there is not any rigorous evidence that accountability has led to a decrease in common sense or creativity. To be sure, testing and accountability may not help with this. But the whole point of my post is that we should be creative about how we evaluate schools. I wholeheartedly support evaluations that move beyond test scores, and the things suggested in that article seem like good potential outcomes.

  • Kimberly Reeves

    It depends on the test, doesn’t it?

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