Beware of the Test Prep Trap

image_pdfSave as PDFimage_printPrint this blog post

By Jay McTighe

In this era of accountability, educators throughout the nation are under pressure. Administrators are held accountable for student achievement in their schools as gauged by standardized tests. Increasingly, teachers’ evaluations include a percentage based on the results of test scores (at least in the tested grades and subjects). In some states, a school can be “reconstituted” if standardized assessment results do not improve over time. And in many communities, the test scores for a district or a school affect real estate values within their boundaries.

Not surprisingly, these factors lead teachers and administrators to pay close attention to the results of external tests and strive to improve them. One consequence of this high-stakes accountability system is the increased use of “test prep” in the classroom; i.e., where teachers spend time focusing primarily on the tested content while giving students lots of practice with the test format (primarily multiple choice).

While mindful of the pressures associated with the high-stakes of accountability testing that lead to test preparation actions, excessive test prep can narrow the curriculum, undermine meaningful learning, and negatively affect student interest and motivation. At best, test prep can yield modest, short-term gains in test scores, especially if students are unfamiliar with standardized test formats and protocols.

However, I contend that the practice itself, while well intentioned, is grounded in misconceptions that may, ultimately, undermine the learning that students need to perform well on standardized tests. Let’s explore these points further.

Register to join Jay McTighe this summer at the 2019
Formative Assessment National Conference

What is Test Prep?

The practice of test prep in the U.S. has several distinguishing characteristics.

    • Students typically engage in exercises and worksheets that mimic the format of standardized tests.
    • Since accountability tests are generally constructed around sets of selected-response items, test prep involves lots of practice on decontextualized, multiple-choice questions.
    • Sometimes, test prep includes timed, on-demand, assessments to simulate test-day conditions.
  • In states that employ computer-based testing, students are often given opportunities to practice using a laptop or tablet device.

Many schools and districts have institutionalized test prep by mandating the use of interim or benchmark assessments modeled after their state tests. Not surprisingly, we have witnessed the growth of an entire cottage industry of commercial “test prep” materials to address this perceived need.

Casualties of Test Prep

There are opportunity costs to consider when precious classroom time and energy are devoted to test prep. More pointedly, excessive test prep can have significant negative consequences. When classroom instruction and assessment fixates excessively on the multiple-choice format, meaningful learning is sacrificed and students are likely to become bored and disengaged by repeated drills on decontextualized items that lack relevance.

Judy Willis, MD, a board-certified neurologist who left her medical practice to become a teacher, has written extensively on the brain and learning. She addresses the negative consequences of test prep in a recent article (Willis, 2012):

Boredom, frustration, negativity, apathy, self-doubt, and the behavioral manifestations of these brain stressors have increased in the past decade. As facts increase, as over-packed curriculum expands, and as demands for rote memorization for high-stakes testing intensify, the brains of our students have reacted to the increased stress. Stress, including that provoked by sustained or frequent boredom or frustration, detours brain processing away from the higher, rational, prefrontal cortex. In the stress state, the lower, reactive brain is in control. Retrievable memory is not formed, and behavioral responses are limited to involuntary fight/flight/freeze – seen in the classroom as acting out, zoning out, or dropping out.

In short, it doesn’t matter how many practice tests we give; if the learners are not engaged or fail to see the purpose, their learning will not be optimized and performance on high-stakes tests will not be bolstered.

Don’t take my word; ask yourself:

  • TeachersTo what extent are your students motivated and genuinely engaged by test prep exercises and drill sheets?
  • AdministratorsDo your best teachers claim that test prep is their favorite or most effective teaching practice?
  • ParentsDo your children rave about the joys of test prep at the dinner table?

The pressures to improve accountability test scores can result in a narrowing of the curriculum. It is often the case that the tested subjects receive greater attention compared to those not tested.

Indeed, we have witnessed schools and districts that have doubled up on reading and mathematics instructional time while reducing or eliminating the arts and/or health and physical education. Sadly, for many students, these are the most engaging subjects in their school day.

The use of precious classroom time for test prep can distort students’ perception of the nature of schooling. They could easily conclude that a primary mission of schools is to improve test taking savvy and raise test scores rather than to strive for meaningful learning. Moreover, a focus on multiple-choice teaching and testing can convey the fallacious idea that navigating school and life is simply a matter of choosing the “correct” answer from 4 or 5 alternatives!

Ironically, the widespread use of test preparation practices based on narrow, inauthentic assessments can unwittingly undermine the very “college and career” readiness competencies identified in national and state standards and for the development of 21st century skills.

Many educators and policy makers worry that important educational goals (e.g., discussion and debate, extended writing for real audiences, research, teamwork, creative problem solving, expression in the arts, or substantive research and experimental inquiry) that are not easily and cheaply tested are likely to “fall through the cracks.”

To be blunt, students will not be equipped to handle the sophisticated work expected in colleges and much of the workforce if teachers simply march through a superficial “coverage” of discrete knowledge and skills in grade-level standards and assess learning primarily through multiple-choice tests of de-contextualized items.

So, What Should be Done?

It would be naïve, indeed irresponsible, to dismiss the reality of high-stakes accountability tests by imploring educators to ignore them or suggesting that if teachers simply “teach well and love the children” the test scores will take care of themselves.

As noted, it is prudent to introduce students to the test format. However, beware of mistaking the measures for the goals. Excessive “multiple choice” teaching and practice testing are not the best long-term strategies for developing a well-rounded, educated person or realizing significant improvements in scores on annual accountability tests.

I contend that the best way to raise test scores over the long haul is to:

  1. Teach the key concepts and processes contained in standards (the content that is purportedly tested) in rich and engaging ways for deep learning
  2. Collect evidence of student understanding of that content via more authentic local assessments
  3. Regularly review student work on authentic tasks in Professional Learning Communities (McTighe, 2008)

Adapted with author’s approval from a longer blog post, available here.

Register to join Jay McTighe this summer at the 2019
Formative Assessment National Conference

McTighe, Jay. Measuring what matters: Part 1 – The case for an assessment overhaul. In What’s Working in Schools Newsletter, December 2010. Bloomington, IN: The Hope Foundation.
McTighe, Jay. (2013). Core Learning: Assessing What Matters Most. Midvale, UT: School Improvement Network
McTighe, Jay. Making the most of professional learning communities. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council. Volume 3, Number 8, May 2008.
McTighe, J., Seif, E., and Wiggins, G. You can teach for meaning. In Educational Leadership. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Volume 62, Number 1, September, 2004.