Teaching to the Test


On Thursday, February 2, 2012, Dr. Wardynski, in his monologue, had this to say about my comments when I mentioned in passing that teachers weren’t simply teaching to the test:

Uh, those who claim that testing, we teach to the test, that testing is not a valuable resource simply do not know what they are talking about. There is no way to test, to take, to teach to the STAR test. It’s a computive, computer-adaptive test in which every child will face a different question. And the questions aren’t the kind you can teach to. If you don’t know algebra, you can’t teach to answering an algebra question. If you don’t know how to factor an equation, you can’t teach to answering a question like that. If you can’t read, we can’t teach you what the paragraph said, cause you haven’t seen the paragraph. And so we’re after the business of literacy and numeracy. Uh, we’re taking a very strategic approach to raising the proficiency of our children, and our excellent teachers are responding.

Wow, where to begin.

It’s important to note that I didn’t claim in my statement that the district was teaching to the test. What I actually said was:

It’s [a love for education] what motivates Mrs. Dodson to take on extra work of evaluating additional assignments like poetry writing projects to encourage advanced students to continue to grow beyond merely the requirements of the test.

Perhaps he was reacting to others’ comments that claim that when testing is the single method of evaluation offered for both students and teachers, then our classrooms set education aside in deference to teaching to the test. While I didn’t say this on Thursday night, it is a problem that I recognize. If the score on the test is the only metric by which we evaluate student and teacher performance, then the test takes the highest priority in the classroom.

It becomes more important than critical thought.

It becomes more important than critical analysis of ideas.

It becomes more important than guided social development.

It becomes more important than intellectual curiosity.

In short, teaching to the test leaves a whole world of education in the dark. You can read more about what standardized tests do and do not cover in The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do.

But with his decades of experience in education, Dr. Wardynski wants you to know that “those who claim we teach to the test, that testing is not a valuable resource simply do not know what they are talking about.”

That’s right. Dr. Wardynski thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about. Thank you sir, that’s high praise coming from you.

So let’s look at his argument to see if Dr. Wardynski is right or not.

The Straw Man Fallacy

It’s always useful, when you enter into a debate with someone, to have an opponent who says something that’s easy to rip apart. Sadly, sometimes we enter into debates with people who aren’t stupid. When this happens, one common method of attack is to set up a straw man that’s easy to knock down. This is a useful technique as typically if you can show that your opponent is wrong on one point, then those listening to the debate will assume that your opponent is wrong on all points. But when your opponent doesn’t give you an easy target, well then you can just create your own.

This is the straw man fallacy. Claim that your opponent has claimed something that is false, even when he or she hasn’t.

Despite Dr. Wardynski’s claims, no reasonable person is claiming that “testing is not a valuable resource.” Every educator knows that testing does have value. But every educator also knows that no matter how fantastic the test is, the test is but one of many methods needed to evaluate education. You’re claiming that your opponents are speaking in absolutes when it is in fact you who are elevating the test to the level of absolute in student performance, in teacher performance, and in school performance.

I am not claiming that the test has no value. I am simply claiming that the test does not have absolute value.

Knowing What You’re Talking About

Dr. Wardynski then goes own to offer an impassioned defense of how it would be impossible to teach to the STAR test. He says:

There is no way to test, to take, to teach to the STAR test. It’s a computive, computer-adaptive test in which every child will face a different question. And the questions aren’t the kind you can teach to. If you don’t know algebra, you can’t teach to answering an algebra question. If you don’t know how to factor an equation, you can’t teach to answering a question like that. If you can’t read, we can’t teach you what the paragraph said, cause you haven’t seen the paragraph.

His argument seems to be that since no one sees the actual questions ahead of time, that it would be impossible to teach to the test. He’s arguing for the security of the STAR test and in doing so, he shows that he doesn’t understand teaching, testing or teaching to the test at all.

I do so love situational irony.

Let’s see if we can help him out here a little. If a teacher knows, as he claimed in his “we’re not teaching to the test speech” that her students are going to be tested on algebra, then a teacher knows that spending time talking about geometry is a waste of time, even if the students raise questions that are geometry questions. If a teacher knows that the test questions are based on the ability to remember details from a paragraph, then a teacher knows that spending time talking about the meaning of a paragraph is less important than talking about the content of the paragraph.

Teaching to the test doesn’t require knowing exactly what questions will be asked on a test. That’s cheating, not teaching to the test.

Teaching to the test means that a teacher knows that the test will cover 10 mathematical concepts, and so the entire focus of the class is then directed toward mathematical concepts ignoring the other questions or pathways that might arise from classroom discussion, questions, or as I mentioned above, intellectual curiosity.

In short, Dr. Wardynski has once again demonstrated his failure to understand the educational process.

Education is More than Testing

Let me see if I can finish with an example of what I am talking about here.

I teach, among other things, a Survey of the New Testament class. In this class, we review the historical underpinnings and development of the New Testament. One of the final assignments in the class is to write an argumentative research essay on what the New Testament has to say about a controversial subject such as abortion, homosexuality, poverty, whatever the student wishes to study.

This is the test that the students must complete. It tests their ability to use resources they’ve been exposed to in the class. It tests their ability to use various methods of Biblical criticism that we’ve discussed in the class. It tests their ability to discuss Scripture intelligently and reasonably.

One semester, I had a student who just couldn’t get her mind around the assignment. She had been struggling all semester, her writing was, to be frank, terrible, and I was to the point of suggesting to her that perhaps trying the class again at a time when her personal life wasn’t interfering with her education might make the class and the assignments easier. You see, her child was dying, and the idea of debating Scripture just wasn’t connecting with her.

But while talking to each other, I discovered that she did have an extensive interest in Mary, Jesus’ mother. She felt connected to her and her loss of her son, especially at that moment in her life. So since I had been the one to design the test, and since I have the freedom to find a student’s interest and run with it, I was able to redesign the assignment into a research essay on Mary.

This student, who had had difficulty even stringing together three sentences in a coherent way, wrote the best essay of the class, and in fact, one of the best essays I have received since. She was getting the learning objectives of the class, and once the test was modified to the student, she was able demonstrate that to me.

Education must be a personal, direct experience between the teacher and the student. When a district determines the test, the curriculum, and what’s important for a student to accomplish, they are taking education out of the hands of the teachers and students, and putting it into the hands of politicians and private companies who sell the test.

We should, we must teach to the student not to the test.

This is why Dr. Wardynski is unconcerned about the quality of the teachers he hires or the experienced ones he runs off. Teachers don’t matter in this brave new world.

A hyper-emphasis on testing results in an educational system where neither the teacher nor the student actually matter.


"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. One irony of this situation is that the very best examples of why teaching strictly to the test fails are the Advanced Placement exams in the humanities.

    When my daughter entered AP World History with a great deal of enthusiasm, and left with none, I knew the teacher would be very, very lucky to get a single 3 on the 1-5 scale [lowest grade for college credit — most schools require at least a 4 or 5] out of the class. It’s not that he didn’t work the kids, and it’s not that he didn’t teach to the test. They did hundreds of note cards and study sheets. But they didn’t write — they couldn’t put together a history from the heaps of facts. They had no idea how to approach a problem involving using those facts to make an argument. The AP tests have an objective and subjective component. They demand that the student be able to use what facts he has memorized.

    The history teacher seemed to think the kids were learning this in English. That certainly would have helped, that is, having a 9th grade honors English teacher who required the kids to write, but when he found out before the test that their English class had more grades based on word searches than essays, it was a little late, and moreover, his tests should have always included essay assignments as well.

    The reason AP tests are so expensive is that humans have to score the essays. Until computers can do so equally well, if you design your curricula to match the intelligence of a machine, you are going to lose a lot of human growth.

  2. “But with his decades of experience in education, Dr. Wardynski wants you to know that “those who claim we teach to the test, that testing is not a valuable resource simply do not know what they are talking about.”


  3. My children have taken more standardized tests this year than I have ever seen before. I will have to give the teachers credit in that they are trying to use the test scores to adjust what the children are learning in math. My 2nd grader and 4th grader were both moved to different math assignments this week based on their Star Math assessment from 2 weeks ago. So for that I am grateful. However, I believe that this would have happened weeks (or even months) ago if the teachers were not so bogged down in testing and paperwork all the time. I believe that if left alone, the teachers have the expertise to know which children are on which level and to tailor lessons appropriately.

    One frustration that I have had in the past week is with my kindergartener’s class. The teacher had a high school tutor offer to come at 7:45 one day a week and offer Spanish lessons to the class for 15 minutes. He wanted to begin with the alphabet and move to common phrases. It would be free and any child could join in at any time. The lesson would be over at 8:00 so that the teacher could start the school day. It seemed like a great idea to the parents. Our principal said that the student would not be allowed to conduct this sort of class. The reason given was that he might not show up on time and if he went past 8:00, it would interfere with the learning activities. I was puzzled at how learning Spanish for a few minutes in the morning could be a detriment to learning, and the only thing I could come up with is that Spanish is not on the Star Enterprise test. I think principals are under tremendous pressure to only include things in the curriculum that will cause the students to score better on these tests. And that is causing the kids to miss out on a great deal.

    1. Is the purpose of testing to gauge what students know or what they don’t know? And if they don’t know the material, is it the students fault or the intructional leaders fault?

      1. I think the tests are just a lazy way of gauging how students are doing and then to judge teachers based on those scores. The tests don’t tell you how well the child is doing based on their individual capabilities, just how they compare to thousands of children across the country. For some children being at 100% could mean that they are capable of far more than they are given and the teacher isn’t doing their job to challenge them. For some children being at 50% could mean that they have come a very long way and are performing at their best, thanks to the hard work of their teacher. Looking at an individual teacher’s scores on the wall in the hallway – which is definitely happening- doesn’t tell you anything at all about the way that teacher teaches. The tests give you no information about a child’s writing skills or creativity, and the tests don’t take into account that some children don’t like taking computer tests and will rush through them as quickly as they can without worrying if they got the answer right, like a certain child at my house.

        I’ve always thought the purpose of the test is to see if the child knows what the administrators want them to know. But if they do not, it is not necessarily anyone’s “fault.”

    2. Scarlet,

      I’ve noticed a similar pattern in my girl’s classroom as well. I’m worried because the tests all show her at 100%. They have since the beginning of school. While I know that she’s being challenged, I also know the test isn’t showing that at all.

  4. What I don’t understand is why we have to keep testing students in advanced math classes that have already passed the graduation exam and are scoring at the 12+grade level on the star math test. Dr. W is insisting on taking valuable time out of advanced and AP math classes to test on arithmetic. Furthermore, they use graphing calculators in all of their classes after Algebra I but they are not even allowed a 4 function calculator on the star test. They are allowed a calculator on the graduation exam which is what taking the star math test aqt this level is supposedly supposed to prepare them fore.

    1. Because if they are already advanced enough to be “Graduated Out” then their scores can only help prove that the school is doing a good job. My son is reading so far beyond his grade level, he shouldn’t have to participate in the AR anymore… but he does. Cause his scores help his teach look good.

  5. Let’s return to tbasics, reading, writing, science, history, arithmetic and P.E. and forget all this testing which is doing nothing but labeling students and schools.

  6. Possibly, No Child Left Behind will be eliminated for good, and this argument will become moot (I sure hope so!).


    What troubles me is that people don’t understand that it *is* No Child Left Behind that is the culprit behind “teaching the test”. Teachers, administrators, and ultimately, the state are fighting the legacy of decisions from a decade ago. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time to some (especially with such an emotive title), but it didn’t work in practice.

    I don’t know if Dr. Wardynski understands, either. My children’s education is often affected by the whims of politicians, and I have told them not to stress over the standardized tests, because it *is* politics and not education. To me, that is a worthy lesson in and of itself.

    1. I agree that NCLB was the origin of teaching to the test, but it has now moved beyond that legislation in many districts across the US, including here in Huntsville. If NCLB were repealed today, Dr. Wardynski would still be pushing to use student testing as the primary means of evaluation for both students and teachers. He said as much on Thursday, February 16th. As he had no experience with educational evaluation, the test is the only method/means that he understands.

      I agree that this is a political whim, but political whims often become ingrained once the whim has passed.

      Thanks for reading and for your insightful commenting!

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