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Teaching to the Test - Boon or Bane?

What is teaching to the test?

Teaching to the test refers to any educational method whose curriculum mostly focuses on preparing students for a standardized test. Teaching to the test has long been a controversial issue among educators around the world.

According to the assessment expert W. James Popham, ‘teaching to the test’ methods can be classified into two categories, namely curriculum teaching and item-teaching.

  • Curriculum teaching: This kind of instruction teaches to the knowledge or skills represented by a test. In this method of teaching, a teacher aims their instruction at content represented in a test rather than at test items.

For example, if students will be tested on vocabulary about the environment, curriculum teachers will cover a specific range of knowledge and skills related to this topic. Their ultimate objective is to make sure students understand the meanings of the words as well as knowing how to use them in speaking or writing in different contexts.

  • Item teaching: Teachers who follow this method would narrow their instruction, organizing their teaching around the actual items that are found on a real test or those that look like the test items.

For example, item teachers might drill students on a small set of environment-related vocabulary words that are expected to be tested. Students will understand the meanings of the words but are mostly unlikely to develop the ability to actually use them in communicating with others.

What’s wrong with teaching to the test?

Since Vietnamese teachers are currently under pressure from stakeholders (parents, school board members, and administrators) to make sure that students perform better on standardized tests, teaching to the test is unavoidable to some certain extent. However, among the two forms of teaching to the test mentioned above, item teaching is apparently unnecessary, unethical and detrimental to students.

According to Popham (2001), item teaching misrepresents how much students really have learned and understood about a topic, and some of the disadvantages of this method include:

  • the invalidity of test scores

  • the increase of cheating in high-stakes tests

  • the lack of opportunity to master more advanced cognitive skills, such as communication or problem-solving

  • the lack of excitement and motivation to learn

  • the lack of emphasis on other areas such as arts and music

  • the negative impact on low-income, secondary English speaking, and/or minority students

How we teach “to the test” at IEG

If teaching to the test is virtually unavoidable at the moment, and a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is not an option, how can teachers help their students?

Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University, stressed that teachers need to teach in deep and thoughtful ways:

  • Give clear and appropriate instruction: help students understand that there is a difference between knowledge needed for tests and practical skills required for life.

  • Treat tests as an analytic exercise: understand that high-quality tests can provide some helpful feedback on students, and use those data to improve the existing curriculum.

At IEG, we strive to give appropriate instruction that is backed up with strong curricula. We believe that it is possible for educators to make better choices about how and when to teach to the test. In future articles, we will provide some insights into innovative teaching approaches and further support to help all teachers align students’ improvement with assessments when it comes to standardized test preparation.


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