Teaching to the test. We’ve all heard the term. We get a pretty good idea just from that phrase that it involves teachers trying to make certain that their students will learn those skills that will be tested on some standardized or state-level test (which may not necessarily be “standardized”). Since no test can measure everything, items on the test look only at those areas that the test designers believe are “must have” skills. The results of such tests are sent to the scoring facility (which is often the same people who designed the test to begin with), results are compiled by class, teacher, grade level, school, school district, region (a lot of districts grouped together), and state. Since the state education commissions are ultimately responsible for the education of its school-aged residents, it becomes the state’s responsibility to let each school district and region know how its students performed against other school districts and regions, as well as how each school in a district performed. For the interested general public, a hundred different means of school level–and even teacher- and class-level–summary comparisons are easily available for instant viewing. For academic researchers, “raw data” (individual student responses, in this case without information that would clearly identify one student) is generally available, although the actual completed tests themselves are usually the property of the test developer.
It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that the scores could be deceiving. Districts–or schools within districts–do not have to be compared by community income and socioeconomic levels, or SES (Socio-Economic Status). That means that a “rich” community’s scores can be compared to a “poor” community’s scores. Being an educational researcher myself by training, I can assure you that public education is unfair, and that the wealthier communities will always outscore those communities with many families below the poverty level. Districts seem to care a lot less about this than they do about the scores, however, and many school districts make a teacher’s continued employment–especially a newer teacher’s employment (because they are not yet tenured)–contingent on how his or her class scored across the board.
Now allow me to tell you a bit more about these tests. I have already mentioned that the item/skill selection to be tested is limited to only a subset of everything students should know at a given grade level. These skills are certainly necessary to test. However, I should become a bit more specific and state that the skills are what the average student should know. Thus, the tests do not necessarily take into account the known fact that individuals–often large proportions of communities of individuals–grow unevenly, so that a student who falls a level below expected grade level in arithmetic skills this time may score above grade level the next time he or she is tested–usually two years later. Sociologists and well-educated educators are aware of the unevenness of growth, and many poorer scoring (or even higher scoring) district administrators can point to sociocultural influences for whatever scores were attained by students. For example, we know that on average Mexican American Hispanic students tend to score lower than Cuban American Hispanic students, especially if the district serves a large population of one or the other. Education researchers know that first-generation Asian American students typically outscore White students, but that subsequent generations of Asian American students score similarly to White students–by economic level; don’t forget about how economics affects student scores, regardless of cultural background.
But back to teaching to the test. Mentioned above is the tendency of some (OK, many) school districts to make a teacher’s continued employment contingent on some level of average test scores on the part of the students. Despite the fact that many of these teachers are protected under state directives and union negotiated rights, many teachers are also aware that an administrator can make their work lives miserable if their class does not attain average scores of whatever the state calls “average,” and that an administrator can use lower test scores as part of the process that could demonstrate teacher incompetence, regardless of fairness of the claim. Once a teacher is fired for incompetence, he or she may never get a teaching job again.
Well, guess what: the new chief reason for administrator woes has become how well his/her students or schools do on mandated testing. It doesn’t matter what has been said or not said about school level and school district administrators, these positions are not protected by state law or union negotiation, and are thus very political in nature–just like “office politics.” The administrators’ jobs are not based on their party affiliation or whom they voted for in the last elections; but too often, the administrator’s job or advancement is dependent on how his or her accomplishments are perceived by superiors. Politics can also limit an administrator’s potential for advancement or even a job with another school district, since the scores of his/her school(s) are public knowledge and would definitely be checked by a prospective employer.
Whose feet will an administrator hold to the fire? Those of the lowly teacher. Afraid that normal teaching will not result in adequate individual student scores and class averages, many teachers choose to concentrate on those skills that their students need for the test, which maximizes the students’ individual and class chance of scoring as high as possible. Thus, the very political game of self-preservation continues, at the expense of our future democratic society.
Do the teachers realize they are selling out? Of course they do. Do they like it? No. Would they rather teach the tested skills as a part of a solid curriculum? Absolutely. But what would you do if your job was on the line and your only hope were the highest test scores possible?