Friday, 2 November 2012

Teaching to the test.

Should we focus on the test, or the learning..?

I read an article recently mounting a case that 'teaching to the test' was valuable and effective teaching practice.
A key disclaimer was made, in that it would only be appropriate to do so if:


  • The test itself was a quality determinate of the child's learning and 
  • Teaching focused on the broad concepts, skills and topics that the test was designed to measure, NOT the actual items on the test themselves... 



Benefits

The main benefits I can see of teaching to the test / summative assessment task include:
  • Focused teaching and learning, as a result of 'backward-mapping' from the ultimate assessment task - everyone is clear about the ultimate goal being worked towards.
  • [Often] extensive opportunity for deliberate practise of the execution of a skill / task is afforded, in a bid to pursue mastery - intrinsically motivating. The '10,000 hour rule' [oft-debated... ] identified by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success:


Concerns

However, I see a few more potential negatives of having a narrow end-focus, particularly if that focus is a test, rather than an open and rich assessment task... Even more particularly if the test is of the standardised, mass-produced kind... 
  • Large-scale tests are good for providing comparative information and the use of 'big data' can identify common areas of need, inform allocation of resources and support, etc. Such tests, however, are NOT locally-designed for specific cohorts of students - a good teacher will often be able to design tests and assessment tasks that better suit the needs of the students under their charge.
  • Teaching with a single end-point in mind, particularly one that has been simplified in order to be implemented with the masses, narrows and restricts the learning opportunities for students. We currently have classic examples of this in our heavily-emphasised national testing of literacy and numeracy, a concept that is common to many Western education systems. Sir Ken Robinson articulates the dangers and pitfalls of the narrowing foci of schools and education systems, as a result of standardised testing:



More Concerns... 

Aside from the restrictions placed on quality learning by 'teaching to the test', don't we already have something that should guide and inform the content of our teaching - a curriculum!?! [I also have big reservations about curriculum documents being 'standardised' and produced on a large-scale, rather than locally, but they are probably thoughts for another day... ]

To sum up, I think tests [even large-scale, standardised ones!] have a role to play in learning and education, as some useful information can be drawn from them to inform further teaching and learning, BUT they should not be the ultimate goal of our teaching and learning in schools - we need to focus on implementing high-quality pedagogical processes and doing what is best for the students' learning.

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