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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

teach to the test

(1990’s | academese (education) | “teach,” “cheat”)

This term is almost always derogatory, regardless of which side of the great education debate it issues from. It doesn’t have to be. As my girlfriend points out, “teach to the test” (“teach the test” is a legitimate variant) ought to be a neutral term, one of many possible strategies for convincing students to learn. If you are teaching algebra or history, you probably break the course up into units with a test every unit or two. The concepts, methods, and facts that you’ve imparted are covered on the test, or at any rate the test does not include material that you have not discussed during class. So you are teaching to the test no matter how the term is defined: you are feeding students what they will be tested on and then testing them on it. Of course, you are also writing the tests and administering them frequently. This time-honored method is not generally called “teaching to the test,” because no one objects to it — it is generally known as “teaching.”

But “teach to the test” has acquired an unmistakable feel of unethical or dishonorable conduct by teachers (often under pressure from administrators). It is a way of raising scores to create the appearance that students are smarter or better prepared than they really are, without the more brazen cheating that teachers and administrators occasionally engage in — supplying correct answers to students, or changing some of the incorrect ones later. Tellingly, the phrase is applied almost invariably to standardized tests administered annually (or less frequently). Whether it implies avoiding large swaths of the curriculum because the teacher knows they won’t show up on the test, or it suggests teachers abandoning proven pedagogical methods in favor of brute-force cramming only the material students will be examined on — whether students are being given an unfair advantage in taking the test or they are being shortchanged in their educations — both sides agree that “teaching to the test” is trouble with a capital T. The anti-testing crowd says the temptation is overwhelming and the only way to get rid of it is to reduce the sway of standardized achievement or aptitude tests. The pro-testing crowd says we need to make better tests, so teaching to the test will be indistinguishable from good teaching. And where it stops nobody knows.

As noted above, “teach the test” pops up often enough to count as a variant, and it seems more logical somehow. The addition of “to” has an effect I can’t quite define. It reminds me of the phrase “speak to” (as in “talk with authority about” or “address”), a usage grown much more commonplace in the last thirty years or so. How to translate “to”? “In the direction of”? “As the goal”? “Sticking to the outline of”? Probably the last: teaching to the test turns the test (whichever one it is) into the template for the course, to the detriment of any other educational interest. Advocates of reducing standardized tests can point to a fearsome list of the casualties of such instruction: stifled creativity, absence of opportunities for critical thinking and analysis, abandonment of any attempt to convey complexity of concepts or processes. Over time, it distorts the very definition of education, placing severe limitations on approaches to learning and throwing out the window any notion of broad-based grasp of the subject in favor of test-question-sized bits of multiple-choice knowledge. Test scores, baby, gimme test scores. They’re like stock prices — they have to keep going up. Not surprising, given the corporate model of education that we have tacitly embraced in the last generation or two.

One thing the term generally does not seem to mean is instruct students in techniques of taking standardized tests. When to guess, how much time to give a particular question before giving up, understanding how the tests are graded, etc. This sort of thing was normal in my youth for kids getting ready for the SAT, and no one objected to it then; as far as I know no one does now, either. Certainly not the legions of disgruntled liberal-arts graduates who fill all those test-prep tutoring slots.

“Teach to the test” started to appear in the educational literature in the sixties and started to emerge in the mainstream during the eighties. Its use has grown more common as standardized tests have been given a larger and larger role in evaluating students, teachers, and public education in general. There is no reason to think it will disappear any time soon.


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