Teaching to the Test

OK let me be clear upfront that I am not a big fan of the current Advanced Placement Computer Science exam. And it’s not just because it is Java based. I think it is too much a language specific test and that is, in my opinion, not a good thing. I’m a concepts based person first and foremost. None the less I follow discussion about the exam closely on the APCS mailing list. (Aside, if you teach high school computer science AP or otherwise two things you should do are signup for the College Board’s APCS mailing list and join the CSTA.) Today I saw a note from someone to the list that I thought really deserved a reply different from what I feel comfortable writing to the mailing list.

But, I am convinced, for now, that teaching the students to the test is also a reasonable part of helping them succeed. Besides, it is the ultimate goal in an AP course, right? 🙂 Pass the test and hope the college the student is interested in takes the score seriously.

This highlights what I think is the worst thing about the AP exams and in fact most standardized tests. They are about the test score first, last and always with barely a thought to how much learning has actually taken place. Now maybe the author of that message is kidding, or being sarcastic, or other wise not writing literally. I can hope so. There is a smiley face in there you know. But my experience is that many students, parents, guidance counselors and not a few teachers really do think that way. “Get the student to pass the test and get college credit and don’t worry if they learn anything.” Scary!

The purpose of any test or quiz should be as a diagnostic tool to make sure students are learning. At the end of the course the final grade should be an indication of real learning and knowledge gained. Any other use besides helping the teacher teach better is extra and secondary. Well that is how I see it. But we have become grades focused and not learning focused. The result is that students learn enough to pass the test and then forget it. Just as bad they never learn the context and usage of the material. This contributes to the forgetting thing and means that these students are not really ready for the next academic step no matter what that might be. If they go though school completely with a focus on grades ahead of learning they are poorly prepared for careers that require and expect some level of actual knowledge beyond test taking skills. (See Over-Educated, Yet Under-Qualified? for more on that.)

Now I am not opposed to standardized tests when used correctly. If they do indicate knowledge gained they can be a valuable tool. That’s why I support industry certification exams (see Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) Certifications for some that may be useful in high schools) but with that caveat that they should not be the sole determining factor when judging a potential hire. Many universities do not accept the APCS scores in part because they have seen students who studied for the test but could not demonstrate adequate knowledge of the material once they got the the next higher course. Computer science builds one course on top of another and you can’t succeed if you have forgotten a lot of material from previous courses. Teachers who just teach to the test for that one score not only do their students a disservice by not preparing the students for the next course but they do other students a disservice by reducing the value of the test itself.

Sure we all a want students to be successful. AP teachers are often evaluated on how well their students do on the AP exam. And there is some value in that as long as it is done fairly and takes the students into account. But a teacher whose students return year after year to talk about how well they were prepared for what came after that course are more to be treasured than students who pass the exam with a 5 and are unprepared for their next course. Not that we’ll get too many administrators to see it that way but it is what it is.

What do you think? Is there value in teaching to the test or is success on the test something that should come organically from students well prepared with concepts, understanding, and depth of knowledge?

Late Edit: This high school student said it all so much better than I could - http://www.sott.net/articles/show/212383-V...aduation-Speech

Comments (1)

  1. Garth says:

    We have to look at this somewhat realistically, if the students’ future is based on a test score (a 4 or 5 on an AP test), then the teacher was no recourse but teach to the test.  If a teacher’s future is based on a test (performance based pay or whatever some states are doing to measure teacher performance) then teach to the test.  An AP teacher that generates nothing but kids that get 1 and 2 in the AP test will soon not be teaching AP.  When the goal is a test score then why would you not teach to the test?  But life is not a test score.  Teaching to a test does not teach students how to learn.  The way the job market is now with people have several careers in a lifetime the most important thing a student can learn, and a teacher teach, is how to learn.  Teaching to a test does not do this except in a very superficial way.  I remember years ago when Jaime Escalante was getting such great accolades for teaching inter-city kids AP Calculus.  His technique was to teach to the test with lots of hardcore repetition of facts and techniques.  Although this is the antithesis of what I believe teaching math should be, in this situation it exposed students to their capabilities and resulted in many of the kids going on to successful careers.  Teaching to a test is not always bad; just realize it has weak points.

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