Quit Teaching to the Test Megan Welsh says focusing on good teaching is more effective
In districts where teachers and schools are being evaluated
based on the test score gains of their students, everything is
riding on making those test scores as high as possible. For
educators under that kind of pressure, “teaching to the test” may
seem like the only option. They hand out practice books and drill
their students for days or weeks before each standardized test to
That kind of test preparation is dismal and unsatisfying for
teachers and students alike. Assistant Professor Megan
Welsh is here to tell you that it also usually doesn’t
work—and if it does, it indicates that there’s a problem with the
quality of high-stakes assessments.
How Do Teachers Prepare Students for Standardized
Welsh’s research focus is psychometrics—the study of how to
develop high-quality measurements. “As a society, we measure
things all the time,” she said, “and the bottom line is, if
policymakers are going to keep using measurements to evaluate
student performance, it’s important that those measurements are
Welsh started her teaching career as an elementary school
bilingual Cantonese/English teacher in Oakland. A few years
later, while she was working as a test director for an Arizona
school district, she became interested in the effects of test
preparation on test scores and on policymakers’ ability to draw
conclusions based on test scores.
“We were providing test materials for practice,” she said, “and I
observed teachers using these with their students. They were more
focused on the students getting the correct answer than working
on the skill that the question was trying to get at.”
To evaluate the effect of test preparation practices on test
scores, Welsh interviewed teachers about their math instruction
and about how much time they spent teaching test-taking skills.
Some teachers taught to the state standards without considering
the content or format of the state test. As one of these teachers
said, “My instruction isn’t the critical point, their learning is
the critical point…my job is to show them how to solve a
At the other end of the test prep spectrum were teachers who
focused on decontextualized practice: requiring students to
answer practice test items that mimicked the content and format
of test items. Teachers with this strategy would often spend a
substantial proportion of the school year on test prep.
“One teacher said that she stops using the district-mandated
curriculum in March to focus on test preparation,” said Welsh.
“She told us, ‘After Christmas break you have a couple months and
it’s like test prep from then on.’ ”
Testing the Test Results
Whose students did the best on standardized tests—teachers who
taught to the test, or teachers who taught to the state
“We observed no difference between students whose teachers
focused on practice with test items and those that taught the
standards more broadly,” said Welsh. “Since the practice is
ineffective, there’s little reason to continue using it.”
Her research is timely and sought-after: “Conceptualizing
Teaching to the Test Under Standards-Based Reform” is the
fourteenth most-downloaded paper from the Taylor & Francis
Applied Measurement in Education website.
Good News or Bad News?
From Welsh’s perspective, her results are good news for teachers
who want to focus on best teaching practices, not
“I don’t think many teachers believe that intensive test prep is
good instruction,” she said, “but there’s a tension there because
they feel they have to do it.” This is documented to be an
especially big problem in urban areas.
Excessive test prep also takes away opportunities for students to
practice higher order skills, solve problems and think
critically—all the things that Common Core standards mandate.
“Instructional time is precious,” said Welsh, “so we can’t waste
any of it.”
Ultimately, psychometricians are concerned with whether tests are
designed and used properly—something which may be overlooked in
the national discussion on standardized testing, and how tests
can be used to evaluate teachers. “High-stakes testing can
provide useful global information about whether students are
performing at grade level,” Welsh said, “but they’re not designed
to provide the kind of detailed information that’s useful in
Megan Welsh joined the School in July 2014 as an assistant
professor in educational assessment and measurement. Since 2008,
she was an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut.
Her primary areas of research include test validity analysis, the
use of assessment as an educational reform lever, grading, and
evaluation of educational programs.