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 ensure success.
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 Test-Taking?
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 good ones.”
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 problem.”
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 standards?
“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 test-taking.
“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 guiding instruction.”