High-Quality Assessments Reduce Pressures to ‘Teach to the Test’


Questioning whether improvements in student proficiency rates on assessments aligned to higher education standards are indicative of student learning, Naomi Nix, a columnist for The 74 Million, argues the results are “hardly a slam dunk.” Instead, Nix suggests, these gains may be attributable to educators gaming the system.

“Test scores can become inflated in a number of ways,” Nix contends. “Teachers tailor their instruction to emphasize concepts or types of questions most likely to appear on the exam. Educators can also coach students by teaching test-taking tricks.”

However, high-quality assessments specifically aligned to higher education standards are designed to closely match what students are learning – which alleviates pressures to “teach to the test.” As a result, the best preparation is good instruction.

Separate studies from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute find one of the strengths of assessments aligned to high, comparable education standards is that they better match “the kinds of strong instructional practices” that effective teachers employ in their classrooms. Evidence also shows these exams outperform states’ old “bubble tests” and most next-generation assessments.

These high-quality assessments “are harder to game” and “actually deserve to guide classroom instruction rather than be condemned for mindless ‘test prep,’” Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, wrote earlier this year. He cautions that states which have “gone it alone” should evaluate their tests to determine whether they uphold the same qualities.

Nix quotes Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of South California, who says policymakers “need to have a little more patience until we can get some other data” verifying whether student improvements are an anomaly. We agree that it is too soon to identify a trend from the two years of scores. But the results indicate it would be a mistake to turn back now as higher standards begin to take root.

Importantly, the gains states have made will not be sustainable unless states commit to providing better professional development for educators, encouraging collaboration and sharing of best practices, and using test results to identify and improve areas of weakness for students and teachers.

It is too early to identify a long-term trend from assessments aligned to more rigorous academic expectations, which are still relatively new. But the evidence suggests states are on the right path. As New Mexico’s Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera noted recently, “These findings send a clear message that it’s a mistake to retreat from high standards or go back to low-quality tests.”