Every spring, education-related newspaper and magazine stories raise the alarm that schools are "teaching to the test." Scores of articles and editorials paint a disheartening picture of frustrated teachers forced to abandon good instructional practices for a relentless stream of worksheets based on boring, repetitive test-preparation materials. Even Hollywood actors are chiming in. Actress Alfre Woodard recently told a Louisiana newspaper, "My sister-in-law is left standing in front of her class with a pamphlet, teaching to the test because everyone must pass."1
Although the phrase %u2014 and the concern %u2014 are hardly new, many observers blame the No Child Left Behind (NClB) act for escalating teaching to the test from a problem into an epidemic. The law "virtually transformed the concept of education," according to a recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, "turning teaching and learning into a mere exercise in prepping students to test well."2
According to that logic, teaching to the test is as unavoidable as a force of nature, as inevitable as gravity. And the choice between good instructional practice and good test scores is really no choice at all, since those who opt not to bow to the pressure will reap harsh consequences under tough accountability systems.
Such claims often are taken at face value. But what do we really know about the phenomenon? Does high stakes testing always force educators to "dumb down" instruction to focus on rote skills and memorization? Do schools that spend a lot of time on test preparation and "drill and kill" instruction actually perform better on standardized tests than those that do not? Those might sound like easy-to-answer questions, but the answers to those questions are surprising. Many forms of teaching to the test are as unnecessary as they are harmful.
Jerald, C.D. ( July, 2006). Teach to the Test? Just Say No. Washington, DC: The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. www.centerforcsri.org.