So what is wrong with ‘teaching to the test’?

Christopher Bantick, in today’s Weekend Australian, rails against what he calls the ‘mewling’ from teacher unions about Victorian teachers being directed by the state government education authorities to teach for the NAPLAN tests. He writes:

The fear teacher unions have is that tenured incompetence will be exposed. The arguments that teaching to the test will rob the curriculum of its richness is a diversion from accountability.

Bantick then quotes Julia Gillard as saying:

“To those who say people will teach to the test, I say if the test is appropriately integrated and testing the curriculum then learning how to do well in literacy and numeracy is not a bad thing,” she said.

The problem, I’ve decided, with most educational debate is that people adopt an either/or standpoint and set up a false dichotomy too readily. Each ‘camp’ then attracts its own share of supporters, largely dependent on which end of the spectrum best suits their experience or agenda. These supporters have their reasons for amplifying the differences between the opposing views and the debate gets falsely imprisoned between the arguments put forward by each camp.

I think both of the above standpoints – those put forward by the teacher unions and Gillard – are simultaneously true. As I’ve stated previously, I think testing per se has had a bad press. If the test is one that tests for understanding and competence, having a balance of skills and questions that elicit the ability to transfer knowledge from one context to another, then it can authentically reflect, and assess, the best practice of learning and instruction. I have been somewhat surprised at the quality of the questions on the NAPLAN numeracy tests in this regard. I am encouraging teachers to use NAPLAN-style questions in topic tests as a way of improving the quality and authenticity of our assessment program – not to ‘teach to the test’.

However, the problem with using results from a national test, taken at the same time of the year in every school, to make judgements about the quality of schooling, is the assumption that every school is at the same point at the same time. The numeracy tests are content-dependent. Schools can have very good reasons for not teaching the content required for NAPLAN tests before these tests are sat. Schools may have programs whereby students are not involved in academic content for a significant portion of a school year, believing that activities other than purely academic are more worthwhile for their students at that particular stage of their overall development as human beings. Schools may have decided that Topic A shouldn’t be taught before Topic C due to a Piagetian developmental reason or that the conceptual linking between certain topics is better done in Y10 rather than Y9.

It would not be in the best interests of the mathematics to be learnt, or the students who need learn it, to order the progression of learning according to what aspects of mathematics are tested on NAPLAN tests. This is the real danger of ‘teaching to the test’…not the way we assess but what we are forced to assess in terms of content. What is taught should never be determined by a national test. Each school is different. Each student is different. Being different doesn’t necessarily mean being ‘bad’, just as being consistent doesn’t mean being ‘good’.


About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
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