Teach to the Test

Believe it or not, not all students hate tests.  When I was a student I loved being tested.  When other students would be frantically reviewing notes, shaking nervously and watching the clock as the seconds ticked down too quickly to T-time, I would sit at my desk excited and raring to go.  “How could a student possibly love being tested?” you ask.  Because I knew that I knew my stuff.  Taking the test was just my way of showing my teacher that; my way of showing off.  When you are not an athletic kid, there aren’t a lot of ways to get trophies.  My trophies were the A’s that I brought home on my tests to hang up on the refrigerator.  The test was not the enemy.  I wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t always get A’s, but I didn’t blame the test.  I knew it wasn’t the test’s fault when I got a question wrong.  It was my fault for not knowing the answer.

There are a lot of people out there who do not feel the same way as me; they do not like tests or assessments.  They blame the test itself for the answers that they do not know, for the low scores they achieve, for the stress they have been feeling for having to be tested at all.  The test is their enemy and it should just go away.

One of my least favorite phrases I hear is “teach to the test”.  It’s usually the point I hear when others fight against assessments, “Assessments are bad for our students because the teachers just teach to the test”.  I would have to disagree with this statement and say there is a huge oversight not being addressed.  Yes, teachers are teaching to the test.  But is that fact necessarily bad?

An assessment, or test, is just a tool used to measure a construct.  The construct of summative, end of the year assessments, for example, is the grade level standards sets by a state.  The state says, “We expect a student in this grade to know this, this and this.”  How can you accurately an reliably know if a student knows something without giving them a test?  You can’t.  So the state creates an assessment that is based entirely on the standards that has been agreed upon.  Then, since administrators and teacher now know that these things are going to be assessed, they focus on teaching them (which is where the phrase is coming from).  But, if a test is testing the state’s standards, and teachers are “teaching to the test”, then aren’t they just teaching the standards?  And what, may I ask, is wrong with that?  Isn’t that the point?  Don’t we want our students to know the standards?  Yes, we do!  If we didn’t, what would be the point in having standards at all?

My stepdaughter’s school  has come up with a really great way to “teach to the test”.  There are two boards in each of her classes; one says “Things I Will Be Able to Do…” and the other says “Things I Know How to Do…”.  On these boards, all the grade level standards are written on separate sheets of paper.  Each week they focus on a new standard and when they’ve mastered it they move it over to the “Things I Know How to Do” board.  I love this idea because it makes the students accountable for what they need to know.  They understand it and know what is expected of them.  My stepdaughter was writing a story last week for homework and I asked what it was focusing on.  She said, “This week I’m learning how to identify kinds of conflicts present in literary plots.”  She then went on to explain them all to me.

Teaching to the test doesn’t have to be a bad mark against assessment.  I think if done properly, teaching to the test can actually be quite good.



  1. Max said:

    Hey Stacy,

    I think you make a great point in that, if “the test” accurately measures what a child knows and/or can do, then by all means TEACH TO THE TEST! 🙂

    I think the main gripe that some educators have with the current state of multiple choice or short answer testing is that devalues the myriad of other ways to assess students. Children are all unique and different in their own way and just as they benefit from differentiated teaching, many could benefit from alternative choices in showing what they know.

    What do you think?

  2. Jenny Kuzmickus said:

    Hello Stacy,
    How are you? I’m currently taking a Web 2.0 course and we are reviewing DEN blogs and I was excited when I came across your blog above. When I worked for DEA I remember our response was always “Do not teach to the test”. This was always confusing to me because students should be taught what they are expected know on a test. It seems pretty straight forward but as you said if done properly teaching to the test can be quite good.

    I sent this message to you previously but I don’t think it was sent. Sorry if you get this twice. Thank you for all your help while I was in assessment. Please tell Robert I said hello.

    Jenny Kuzmickus

  3. Ed Fuller said:


    Unfortunately your arguments reveal a very, very common misconception about the relationship between tests and the domain/standards assessed by the test. In most states, the domain is far too large to be fully assessed using a test. So, the test samples from the domain (usually using between 35 and 50 questions). If teachers know ahead of time the types of questions that will be on the test (which they usually do) and teach more about the topics assessed by those questions than questions that don’t regularly appear on the test, then the teacher is teaching to the test. And, when this happens, the score the student gets is reflective only of the part of the domain taught by the teacher.The score is inflated with respect to the knowledge and skills reflected in the ENTIRE the entire domain of the standards. Please read Daniel Koretz’s book, \Measuring Up\ for a complete discussion of this.

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