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In Defence of "Teaching to the Test"

EducationPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Sun, September 23, 2018 11:14:01

This week I must complete my results analysis, a task made considerably easier by the excellent performance of my students last summer. Despite spectacular results, I will be asked to justify the three students that ended up below par. One student was one mark off a 7, so what went wrong there? Until this stops happening to us (and I fail to envisage a future in which it does), teachers will “teach to the test”.

Yet this is not the only reason that teachers do so, and I would argue that “teaching to the test” is only undesirable when it happens to the exclusion of all else. When “teaching to the test” becomes the sole purpose of education, of course we have a problem; but “teaching to the test” is an essential part of a functioning education system, and we’re doing the students a disservice if we pretend otherwise.

Examinations are a game – a sport, with complex rules. Students with privilege are taught how to play the game and are drilled over time for the match. They have parents that support them in their training and cheer from behind the touchline. They have coaches with experience in honing their skills and their mindset. They have the right equipment. One of the most powerful things that we can do for our students is to teach them the rules and practise for the game; to send them onto the field without such preparation is setting them up for failure.

The notion that well-taught students will perform to the best of their ability without direct and explicit preparation for a particular examination is a ludicrous fantasy, and I am stunned at the number of high-ranking educationalists that seem wedded to it. Until we find a way of testing students other than written examination (which hasn't happened to date) what would we all prefer: a teacher who understands the examination process or a teacher who doesn't?

One of the single most useful things that a teacher can do is to mark for the relevant exam board. The training that you receive demystifies the examination process and the unhelpful mark-schemes filled with phrases such as “wide-ranging response” and “answer fully shaped for purpose”. Train as a marker and the chief examiner will enlighten you as to what the hell these statements actually mean (for example, with a ball-park figure on the number of points expected in a “wide-ranging” answer). Marking is a tedious and stressful responsibility to take on board on top of your teaching load and is certainly not worth it for the money – but the benefit to students is immense.

My subject is notoriously difficult and is offered in our school as a part of our provision for academic stretch and challenge. The notion that I could guide my students to excel in the examination without furnishing them with skills that are transferable to A level is startling to me. Who is actually doing that?! This does not mean that students will find the switch to A level unchallenging – of course they will find it difficult, and so they should; but the analytical skills that I have taught them will transfer, as will the study skills, as will the method of approaching an exam with their eyes wide open, armed with the knowledge and know-how required to succeed. If this is not the purpose of what we do, I’ve been getting it wrong for two decades.

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