Why we should be “teaching to the test”

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Curriculum

Teaching to the test is part of effective teaching, IF we're using the right tests.

This post carries on a rant I had on facebook recently in response to hoity-toity comments about how we shouldn’t be “teaching to the test” and should just focus on teaching psychology to our students. Personally, I think this is a bollocks argument for a number of reasons.

For one, as I’ve said before, if you’re not teaching to the test you either need to change what you’re teaching, or change what you’re testing. “Assessment” has started to get a bad name in education and that’s worrisome because it’s absolutely vital for effective teaching. Without assessment we don’t know what students have learned and what they still need to learn. If we don’t know where they’re at and where they still need to get to, how can we give them effective feedback to help them along the way?

I think some teachers view assessment as just another “check-box” task needed in order to appease administrators, like unit planning. But I like to boil teaching down to its basics and when I do that, assessment (along with planning) is absolutely vital. At its simplest, each lesson I walk into my class and I want to teach a thing, so we do some things, and then I see if students learned that thing. I don’t see how we should be doing it any other way and the final step in seeing if students learned is where assessment comes in.

This is why I think it’s imperative that we’re teaching to the test, if we’re using the right tests. “Test” is just a type of assessment and so it’s a no-brainer that what I’m trying to teach is inline with what I’m assessing. If I was to try to teach (a), and then see if students learned (b), what a waste of time that would be. Similarly, if I tried to teach (a), in an effective unit plan this would be important stuff before moving on to teaching (b), so to not see if I’ve taught (a) and to just assume that students have learned it would be selfish and careless. Unfortunately, we know this to be the practice of some teachers.

I like to get some formative data twice in every lesson. Once during our consolidation activity in the beginning of the lesson where we recap what we learned previously, and again towards the end of the lesson where students show me their responses to the lesson’s guiding question. This is manageable, for me and the students, and as much as possible I try to incorporate these tasks into the lesson itself so they’re activities, not “tests.”

The other reason why the high-horsed approach to IB assessment annoys me, especially when it comes from people working for the IB, is that there’s no escaping the importance of exam results. Parents of my students are paying thousands of dollars in tuition for students to take the IB Diploma and they’re not just paying that for the intrinsic benefits of a solid education – they’re paying for results that mean something when it comes to college admissions. For me to overlook the importance of the exams, including parent and student goals, would be irresponsible, I feel.

And I still come back to my original point: if we’re trying to downplay how much we should be focused on the exams, then it suggests that the exams need to change. Personally, however, I’m OK with the current IB Psychology assessments. They do a fairly good job of assessing knowledge, understanding and critical thinking. I do think that the rubrics could easily be improved, but that doesn’t stop me from using my own.

I also like to offer my own style of assessments in my course, just to keep it balanced and to ensure that the students are seeing psychology as a subject in and of itself and not just something that ends with the May exams. This is where I like to introduce research projects where students choose what they want to research and write about, as long as it’s relevant to what we’ve been studying. But even then the outcomes and assessment objectives are in-line with the course requirements.

Another reason why the apparent lack of focus on assessment during the new IB Psych’ course review and writing stages is baffling is because the assessment should be used to see what students learned from the course, so teaching to the test means teaching the course as it’s laid out in the guide. So really in this case “teaching to the test” really just means “teaching to the guide.” And should we not be flipping-well teaching to the guide? If we’re not, what the hell’s it there for?

Preparing students for success in life and success in IB exams do not need to be mutually exclusive goals.

I can see why the practice of “teaching to the test” has gotten a bad wrap, especially with the focus of standardized tests that can only assess superficial knowledge. Perhaps even in some IB classrooms the focus is too far on the exams. But I’d still maintain that the best way for students to be prepared for the IB Psychology exam is for them to know psychology, and the best way for them to know psychology is to be taught well, and good teaching comes with effective assessment.