Teaching to the Test

High-Quality Assessments Used for the Right Reasons May be a Useful Tool for Teachers to improve Teaching Quality

In his CenterLine post, Can Educational Assessment Improve Teaching?, Executive Director Scott Marion invited readers to share their thoughts on the complex, but critical issue of identifying ways that assessments can be used to improve teaching quality. In this guest post, we share Kadie Wilson’s response to Scott’s invitation. Kadie Wilson is Assistant Superintendent in New Hampshire School Administrative Unit #9.

Scott Marion asked the thought-provoking question, “How can high-quality assessments be used to improve teaching quality?”

I often interact with educators who make instructional and assessment decisions based solely on the suggestions from a particular curriculum resource; however, while there are many high-quality resources out there, no one material will meet the needs of each and every student. Educators must collect formative data on student achievement and use those data in connection with established standards and competencies to plan and adjust instruction. They also need to have a clear picture of the ultimate learning goals and how students might demonstrate their understanding of these goals. 

Assessments need to reflect all of those components.

The Gap Created by Teaching to the Test

The idea of “teaching to the test” carries negative connotations. It reminds me of my early years as an educator when I focused on analyzing test results looking for patterns in data. What types of questions caused my students to struggle? Were those errors relating to content and skills that weren’t covered?  Are the patterns in the data specific to my class, our school, or our district?  Which students were “on the bubble” last year and therefore would need more attention to increase our percentage of students scoring proficient? I was focused on making sure my students did well on the statewide assessment. If they did well, it meant I had done my job well.  However, I was neglecting to focus on whether or not had my students actually learned what they needed to learn.  

My perspective on assessment has evolved. I no longer view scoring well on any one assessment as the end goal of education. I now understand the complexities involved in defining student achievement in the 21st century. I am a firm believer in the importance of accountability and the responsibility of educational systems to ensure students achieve. I also believe in the power of a high-quality local system of assessment to be a lever used to improve outcomes for students. At the same time, I agree with Scott Marion that teaching will not be improved through assessment on its own. I’d like to argue that with reflective practice and high-quality assessments, teaching to the test, if it’s the right test and used for the right reasons, might be one key to ensuring students are prepared to succeed.

The Potential of Teaching to the Test 

Performance-based assessments should:

  • be designed to elicit deeper thinking, 
  • be aligned to competencies and standards, 
  • be clear, and 
  • provide an unbiased opportunity for students to demonstrate their ability to apply and transfer their understanding of the content and/or skills (Lane, 2010.) 

I would like to take it a step further and argue that assessment should also be aligned to the instructional practices used with students. Doing so requires educators to engage in reflective practice. When creating an assessment, the educator must look critically at it and ask the following questions:

How are the skills and understandings I am assessing important and relevant to my students? How might they be used by students outside of school?”

“How can I provide multiple, diverse learning opportunities for students that will allow them to engage with similar content in skills and develop a deep understanding of the domain?” 

The first question gets at the purpose behind an assessment. Unfortunately, the predominant purpose of assessment in many classrooms has been to give a grade or to provide evidence toward accountability. The focus hasn’t been on actual learning. Feedback was thought to be a score rather than specific information to improve learning, which creates a culture where students who know how to play the game of school do all they can to grab extra points. 

Other students, not interested in that game, become disengaged and do not see a purpose for school. This is not a new problem. Shepard (2000) writes about the need to change our cultural practices around assessment so both teachers and students see it as a source of information for learning rather than a system for handing out rewards and punishments. If we create and use assessments that are relevant to students’ lives, requiring them to use what they are learning to solve real problems, students will be more motivated and will learn. High-quality assessments can become vehicles for providing students feedback on their learning rather than tools for merely evaluating it. 

However, making changes to the types of assessments we use is not enough to change outcomes for students. Improvement in outcomes for students requires working at the intersection of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. It requires reflective practice.

Understanding When Assessment Signals a Need to Change Instructional Practice

The second question gets at the power of assessment to change instructional practice, and in turn outcomes for students. It requires personal reflection. Recently, I had an interaction with an educator who came to this realization on her own. She had designed an assessment for her eighth-grade algebra students. Their task was to evaluate different cell phone plans and argue which one would be best for their family using the algebra they had learned. 

When she finished the draft of the task, she reflected and made the statement that there was no way her students were going to be successful with it. She realized that while she had taught her students the skills they needed, she had not provided multiple, diverse opportunities for them to apply those skills independently in real-life contexts. This realization illustrates the power of assessment to change instructional practice. Creating a high-quality assessment caused her to reflect on what she was going to have to do instructionally with her students. 

With this new knowledge, she changed her plans and gave her students opportunities to interact with algebra in new and different ways. The assessment on its own didn’t change her instruction, but reflecting on what the assessment was asking students to do did lead her to change her practice. Without that experience and that assessment, her instruction would not likely have changed. In this case, teaching to this test provided improved outcomes for students.

Teaching to the Test Can Work When Appropriate

So, is teaching to the test a good or bad practice? I’d argue it can be either. It depends on the quality of the test, and if the instructional strategies and materials used to support the learning are aligned, coherent, and focused on students demonstrating deep understanding. Most importantly, the underlying purpose cannot be about doing well on the test. Shepard (2000) describes the dangers of “tests worth teaching to” when the focus of instruction becomes narrow. 

The purpose of assessment must be about ensuring students are able to use the skills and knowledge they are learning in authentic contexts when they need them. The debate around whether assessment is a lever that can improve outcomes for students is one with a long history. Resnick and Resnick (1992) describe the strong link between educational reform and testing. Given the history, I believe it is safe to say that making changes to our assessment system on its own will not change outcomes for students. At the same time, I believe in the power of high-quality systems of assessment to support educator reflection, leverage changes in instructional practice and, in the end, improve student achievement. 

If it’s a high-quality assessment focused on deep student learning, I say, teach to it!


Lane, S. (2010). Performance assessment: The state of the art. (SCOPE Student Performance Assessment Series). Stanford, CA: Stanford University, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

Resnick L.B., Resnick D.P. (1992) Assessing the Thinking Curriculum: New Tools for Educational Reform. In: Gifford B.R., O’Connor M.C. (eds) Changing Assessments. Evaluation in Education and Human Services, vol 30. Springer, Dordrecht.

Shepard, L. A. (2000). The Role of Assessment in a Learning CultureEducational Researcher29(7), 4–14.