Why Teachers SHOULD Teach to the Test

Since standard testing was tied to school revenue and teacher assessment, I have heard teachers complain about having to “teach to the test”. The argument is that trying to increase standard test score leaves them less time to actually teach the students. I understand the argument, but let’s take into account how we got here in the first place.

Testing standards were introduced because student where graduating without the needed skills to succeed in college or in life. Reading levels were far below international par, and math skills, along with general knowledge ranked far below other developed nations. In the inner city schools, the problem was worse. In the absence of an objective standard too many students were not learning. One solution was to come up with a set of testing standards that would allow us to objectively evaluate what students were actually learning. Let’s face it. If the job of education was getting done, there would never have been a need to introduce broad testing standards. The problem is not in having a standard. The problem is that the testing standards don’t align properly with with available curricula or lesson plans. Comparatively, it is easy to come up with a list of standards. The hard part is coming up with a set of standards that take into account the length of the school year, the disparity of knowledge even in a single classroom, and the fact that teachers have been largely left to their own to create all of the materials needed to support the new standard. Another problem is that testing standards are naturally geared to one type of learning.

There are two types of learning that take place in the classroom. I call them objective learning and subjective learning. Objective learning is simple. The teacher simply presents information and the child memorized the correct answer for the test. An example of testing for objective learning would be to ask a question like, “What is the capital of Washington State? There is a binary answer. Objective learning is not hard to implement. Students are required to give finite answers to finite questions. There is a right and wrong answer. Subjective learning is far more complicated and time consuming. An example of subjective learning would be when a teacher asks a student to read a passage and then talk about what the passage means to the student. The quality of the answer is left to the subjective assessment of the teacher.

In reality, testing standards are not the problem. The problem is the inherent conflict between objective and subjective learning. School curricula often mixes the two. This has the effect of muddying the waters of a child’s mind. Switching between the two forms of learning can be difficult. The reason other countries don’t seem to have this problem is that their education systems focus more on objective learning. In the American classroom, teachers find that they just don’t have the time to conduct subjective learning because our students seem to struggle with object learning. Objective learning takes place through repetition and memorization. These are activities best complimented by homework time, not classroom time. There is a difference when a child understands an idea verses learning an idea. A teacher can present information in a classroom and most of the children understand the information immediately. But, once the child is removed from the objective information, he or she quickly forgets. The child understands the information, but the child has not learned it. Learning means that the student understands the information and has retained the information in their long term memories. Neuroscience teaches us that it takes at least three days for information to pass from a child’s short term memory to a child’s long term memory. Frankly, our modern curricula is not designed to do this effectively. The net result is that teachers spend too much time repeating objective information leaving little time to explore subjective learning. Many school systems put so much emphasis on subjective learning exercises that student are expressive, but never master the basic knowledge to express truly¬†informed¬†subjective conclusions.

I think part of this problem started several decades ago when educators looked at college learners. When I was at Harvard, many of my final exams were open book. At first, I thought this was great until I realized that unless I mastered the objective information before the test, my subjective answers were weak and my grades suffered. There was just too much information to lookup during the test.  Seeing subjective learning as the golden goose, the emphasis on subjective education began to creep into earlier and earlier grades before the students actually had the chance to master objective information. It was a value shift. And it was, I think, a mistake.

I watched an interview by Neil Cavuto on Fox News that brilliantly makes my point. Here we saw a young college girl who had the gift of gab expressing her views on why college loans should be forgiven, student minimum wages set to $15 an hours, and how future college education should be free. In the absents of facts, she sounded educated, well spoken, and credible. But, when asked for specifics, her arguments fell apart and her lack of basic knowledge was embarrassing. I would give her high marks on her subjective education, but her objective learning was no where to be seen.

In another example of subjective verses objective learning, I had a teacher named Phil Post for an advanced history class at an elite private school I attended. He announced that he would not force us to learn dates and facts because he wanted us to learn the meaning of history. What he did correctly was that he raised the bar. At first, we all gave weak uninformed answers to his questions, but by the end of the school year, he had tricked us into learning and retaining all of the dates and facts he promised not to make us learn. He did this by using a class argument technic that one could only win by giving well informed AND well thought out answers based on the facts. Again, the value of our objective learning could not have been more important.

Young minds can easily learn objective information given enough repetition. That means good homework exercises, and reviewing factual information over a number of days. Subjective learning is strained and often ineffective without first mastering objective learning technics. With enough practice, you can get a student to be well expressed, but the learned thinking will be incomplete and weak. I have heard elementary school teachers say that they don’t want their kids just to learn the facts. I am saying that learning the facts is exactly what they need to focus on in their early education to inform and enhance their later education when a more subjective approach is more effective because the accumulation of knowledge combined with a more mature brain lends to a stronger result. At young ages, not all minds are mature enough for subjective learning.

What is the problem with teaching to the test? It’s no fun and students are less interested in dry facts over expressing their uninformed ideas. Testing is not the problem. Testing should reflect the facts a child needs to master the foundation of a given subject matter. If the test fails to do that, change it. Hold off on the emphasis on subjective learning skills until the child is a bit older. America became great by focusing on the fundamentals before delving into the subjective realms. Stop trying to have the conversation before you know the grammar and vocabulary of the language. Let’s stop trying to force subjective education too early. It is a disservice to our children.

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