Why you should be teaching to the test

Back in the day, if you were ‘teaching to the test,’ you weren’t really doing your job as a teacher. You isolated the pieces of knowledge and the skills that you knew would come up on the test and taught them to the exclusion of broader educational activities that might have enriched the students’ experience. You might have done this to ensure a high pass rate, which reflected well on you as a teacher if the higher-ups were judging you on your students’ test scores. But teaching to the test was frowned upon as a kind of shortcut for both teacher and students.

Since the advent of the accountability movement, teaching to the test is exactly what you should be doing. In the currently popular paradigm, schools and teachers are accountable for students’ achievement of defined learning outcomes, expressed in behavioral terms: “The student will be able to…” Examples in language programs are:

  • give a five-minute presentation on a topic of personal interest
  • write a five-paragraph narrative essay
  • summarize, in writing, a radio news story
  • re-tell orally the plot of a short story

If the learning outcomes are well-conceived, they should be a guide to what the test – let’s call it an assessment – should be. How do you assess students’ ability to give a five-minute presentation? Have them give a five-minute presentation at the end of the course. How do you assess their ability to write a five-paragraph essay? Have them write a five-paragraph essay. And so on. (The specifics of the assessment will need to be made clear, and rubrics provide a means of determining the students’ level of performance.)

And so what is the best way to prepare students to give a presentation? Teach to the test and have them practice giving presentations. To write an essay? Teach to the test and have them write essays. This is what I mean when I say ‘you should be teaching to the test.’

Some summative tests – including many of those provided in published textbooks – are not good tests to teach to. A grammar gap-fill isn’t much use in giving information about a student’s final level of achievement, unless your learning outcome is ‘be able to provide the appropriate grammatical forms in a gap-fill test.’ That’s not a very useful outcome to anyone, though this activity might help promote student learning along the way. A well-defined learning outcome is a behavior that you can describe to a future employer or school indicating the student’s ability to do useful things with language.

So let’s embrace teaching to the test – as long as you have good learning outcomes and a corresponding test that assesses them appropriately. (If you don’t, maybe it’s time for an overhaul.) And while we’re doing that, let’s not forget that games, songs, poetry, sharing experiences, and laughter create a positive, human environment that leads to unanticipated learning and ideal conditions for students to learn.