Teaching To the Test: What Every Educator and Policy-maker Should Know

  • Louis Volante


The job of any teacher is first and foremost to promote learning in their students. Student learning should emphasize applied learning and thinking skills, not just declarative knowledge and basic skills (Jones, 2004). Ideally, students are able to develop the skills necessary to take what they have learned and apply this knowledge in a novel situation. In this sense, teachers are promoting authentic learning within their classrooms. In North America, however, high-stakes testing procedures have interfered with these goals, and are increasingly used to measure student knowledge and gauge the effectiveness of instruction. Each spring teachers throughout Canada are required to administer a series of provincially mandated tests to students in their classrooms (Simner, 2000). These standardized tests are often used to make comparisons across students, schools, and boards of education. Individual teachers and schools are often blamed for poor test results, which are typically reported in the press. 

Standardized tests, when used appropriately, help teachers identify student strengths and weaknesses (McMillan, 2000). A standardized test is one that is administered and scored under uniform and controlled conditions (Payne, 2003). Used most commonly in K-12 schools, standardized tests are intended to measure learning outcomes and skills that are common to the curricula in a vast number of schools and school districts (Chatterji, 2003). Students typically complete norm-referenced tests that compare their performance to a representative sample of students in a norm group (e.g., a group of students at the national, regional, or provincial/state level) (Gronlund, 2003). Other students undertake criterion-referenced tests that compare their performance to a preset standard of acceptable performance in a particular area (Borich & Tombari, 2004). Both norm-referenced and criterion-referenced test results are increasingly used as benchmarks of success in North American schools.