Slice of Life: Teaching to the Test


(This is part of the Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. We write about small moments each and every day for March. You come, too. Write with us.)

Like many of you who are classroom teachers, we are in the midst of “state testing season.” Or at least, we are entering round one (round two comes in May with Math). This week, my sixth grade students will be diving into the state reading assessment in two two-hour blocks.

There was a time, years back, where I did very little to prep them, feeling that “teaching to the test” was against everything I believed in as an educator. I  changed my mind over time as I realized they needed more overt help in navigating the test. I could not ignore the data showing how much my students were struggling and how glaring some of the weaknesses were.

I felt guilty about not helping them.

So, yes, I now teach strategies all year — good, solid reading and writing strategies, I hope — with an eye towards the state testing, which will be undergoing change in the years ahead with PARCC. I still feel a bit odd about teaching a lesson with overt references to our MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) and the kids groan when I mention MCAS. But I’ve come to realize that this is now part of my job. I don’t drill and kill about it. I teach strategies for approaching unknown reading passages and questions. I frame these lessons in a real way — these are the strategies that readers use all the time. I am just making them more visible. I hope.

Literary terms

Yesterday, we did a review of literary terms, partly as a way to lodge some ideas into their heads and partly to connect these terms to the novels we have been reading all year. Still, I have to admit: the timing of that review was designed to align with this week’s testing.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that, even with all of my intellectual defenses outlined above, that this is bad teaching and is still something I don’t believe in, as something that won’t help my students become stronger readers and better writers and more engaged citizens of the world. I walk away from these kinds of lessons with tinges of guilt that I just can’t shake — a different kind of guilt than I felt in the early years after looking at test scores and realizing my silent protest was hurting my students. On any day of the week, I’d rather have them be writing what they want to write, and being creative in a variety of ways with media, technology and words. That is why I got into teaching in the first place.

And so, I still feel guilty about the strategic moves into teaching for the test, even though our scores have gotten better over the years and I now pour over data to see where weaknesses might still exist, and I wish I could in good conscious return to my days of silent refusal, to focus on teaching for learning, not teaching for testing. But I fear those days are now gone.

Peace (in the silent protest),



  1. I had my first child right when MCAS was starting to pick up speed and did not step back into the classroom till last year in a support roll. Despite my absense I understand your feelings! You conveyed them well, the ‘almost’ resignation, the responsibility, the guilt. . . Because deep down we know good teaching, excellent teaching, engaged learning ought to be ‘enough’

  2. Kevin,
    So right there with you. I truly believe that the best test prep is simply good instruction, all day every day. At the same time, there are certain test prep skills that are helpful to kids, and several years ago, I started doing some of that work. I knew my kids were reading and writing much better, from other data that I had collected, but it sure was not showing on the tests. I guess, then it’s the right thing to do, but I absolutely hate it!

  3. I love the balance you are seeking. Responding to test questions takes a certain kind of knowledge and if students aren’t given that knowledge they will not respond in ways that they might be capable. Given that, too much time is waste of time. Some would say that any time is waste of time. I am one to lean toward balance. And an understanding that if a child is going to encounter something, I want to make that interaction as stress free and easy as possible. Soon this will be over for another year!

  4. I agree with Judy! You are not alone in the quagmire (and I love that word, quagmire)!! I struggle with walking the tight rope. You continue to reflect and search out what’s best for your students. That makes you an amazing teacher!!

  5. You’ve got a lot of company! Aren’t we all trying to be creative, teaching inspiring creative kids and feeling stifled by these darn tests? But I agree with you when you say that good, solid teaching every day should be the thing that prepares them! I read a few years ago (I think on TWT!) that teaching test taking skills could be treated like another genre study (for reading and writing) so now I do that every May and then administer The Test at the beginning of June. I think it helps the students to feel relaxed because they know they have just been practicing everything that they will have to do. I definitely agree with you: these tests aren’t going to help them become better citizens who are engaged in their world. Actually, wouldn’t be interesting for someone to actually ask them what they think about the tests, how it impacts them? But ask weeks after, not in the middle of the test!

  6. “As something that won’t help my students become stronger readers and better writers and more engaged citizens of the world. ” Such an important line and one that should ground all of the work we do with and for students. We do have to give students strategies for these tests, for sure, and we do have to look at the data. But, we will remembered as great teachers for being the ones who got them to writes creatively, read with passion, and think like citizens.

    Great post! Really important.

  7. I too feel that sense of resignation in your piece. There has to be a healthy balance we have not yet found that.

    I had a wonderful teacher say this to me once and It has stayed with me. She said we have to hold on to our core beliefs and not get swept away by the pendulum. Thanks for this piece!

  8. Kevin,
    You are in a place where I was last year and many years before. I did the exact same turn around you did thinking I couldn’t ignore the data and I was doing the kids a disservice by not giving them strategies to negotiate this big part of their school existence. Frankly when we made the switch to Common Core the mood shifted.

    I could go back to the not teach to the test approach for two reasons 1) we have no data, we don’t know what it looks like so just teach to the standards, and 2) the standards are by their very nature a huge change. They require more thinking and more writing than previous tests so we better start doing a whole lot of that.

    I fear my attitude will shift a little towards the subtle and not so subtle test prep motivated teaching moves once data becomes more apparent. That seems to be how it goes.

  9. It’s a tough balance, this testing business. I agree we can’t just turn a blind eye. Next year our students will have to test on the computer,. This to me is totally not developmentally appropriate.

  10. I cannot stand references to “the test” and I refer kids to it all the time. Each year our school goal is for higher student achievement. We are excited to start the school year, teaching and hoping for the best.

    Then February comes, and we run around like chickens with our heads cut off, furiously teaching vocabulary, strategies, and “test taking” ideas, only to have the students shut down. They don’t want to learn this way, and we don’t want to teach this way.

    However, some of the test vocabulary and strategies just make good sense in the “regular classroom day” and I think we should stick by what we know is best. The purpose is what matters. Testing? or LEARNING?

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