Teaching to the test

Teaching to the test

Teaching to the test is an educational practice where the curriculum is centered primarily around an end assessment or standardized test. The practice is designed to give students a set range of knowledge or skills that will allow them to enhance their performance on tests. It is sometimes called drill and kill, from the primary activities: excessive drilling of simple, isolated skills, and killing off understanding.

Teaching to the test is ineffective: it often does not achieve its primary goal of raising student scores.[1] Teachers who engage in it are typically below-average teachers.[1]



Teaching to the test includes such activities as drilling on test content, downplaying or eliminating teaching on subjects not covered by standardized tests, examining practice or old tests, and in some extreme cases, providing answers to test questions while the test is in progress.[2]

It is also frequently used for skill-based learning, like typing or athletics; in this context, teaching to the test is the dominant practice.[3] In situations not involving standardized testing, teaching to the test is used to combine instruction and assessment.[3]


Critics of the practice argue that students taught using this method lack a comprehensive understanding of subject matter; even if it raised test scores—which it fails to do[1]—students may not truly grasp the key concepts of the domain.[2] Teaching to the test activities emphasize rote memorization and exclude creative and abstract-thinking skills. Teachers who want to raise test scores must promote deep conceptual understanding of the subject matter.[1]

The practice also reduces the validity of standardized tests, and can create an incorrect profile of a student or school's achievement.[2] Teaching to the test may result in teacher disillusionment and unhappiness.[2]


Because of its shortcomings, the practice of teaching to the test is unethical. A 1989 study on teaching to the test evaluated the ethical "continuum" of the practice, and identified seven practice points, ranging from most to least ethical:[4]

  1. General instruction on local objectives
  2. Instruction on general test-taking skills
  3. Instruction on objectives generally measured by standardized tests
  4. Instruction on objectives specific to the test used
  5. Instruction on objectives specific to the test used and using the same format
  6. Instruction using a released test or a "clone" test that replicates the format and content of the test used
  7. Instruction using the test to be used, either before or during test administration

The study concluded that the ethical boundary fell between points three and five, with points one and two being ethical and points six and seven being unethical.[4]

In practice

The No Child Left Behind policy in the United States has increased the practice of teaching to the test because of its emphasis on standardized test scores; this is especially true in schools with disadvantaged students, which rely heavily on government funding.[2] Test preparation courses and cram schools are limited examples of teaching to the test.


  1. ^ a b c d Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measuring Effective Teaching Program. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. December 2010. http://documents.latimes.com/measures-of-effective-teaching/. Lay summary – The Los Angeles Times (11 December 2010). 
  2. ^ a b c d e Volante, Louis (September 2004). "Teaching to the Test: What every educator and policy-maker should know". Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy (35). http://www.umanitoba.ca/publications/cjeap/articles/volante.html. Retrieved 18 September 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Bond, Lloyd. "Teaching to the Test". University of Victoria. http://web.uvic.ca/psyc/skelton/Teaching/TEACHING%20TO%20THE%20TEST.htm. Retrieved 18 September 2010. 
  4. ^ a b Mehrens, W.A.; Kaminski, J (1989). "Methods for Improving Standardized Test Scores: Fruitful, Fruitless or Fraudulent?". Educational Measurement: Issues and Practices 8 (1): 14–22. 

Further reading

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