(Editor's note: This commentary originally appeared in the Cadillac News on Sept. 28, 2009.)
All teachers teach to tests. Testing is the best tool for identifying when and where students are struggling, on track or excelling. The best way to determine a student's understanding of a subject is to teach them the material and then later test them on that very same material. It's not enough for a teacher to merely plow through a curriculum. Some level of accountability must exist to gauge the success of the teaching process.
In spite of this, the term "teaching to the test" carries a negative connotation for most people, especially when referring to standardized tests like the MEAP. Parents often fear that their children are being drilled with arbitrary facts so that they can fill in the proper ovals with a No. 2 pencil. Not all of this fear is imaginary, but this doesn't change the fact that teachers need to teach to a test if they want to know the needs of their students and how best to meet those needs.
Some may argue that standardized tests only focus on rote memory skills rather than critical thinking. They should read Daniel T. Willingham's new book, "Why Don't Students Like School?" Willingham, a cognitive scientist, shows that factual knowledge is essential to developing critical thinking skills. The facts memorized for standardized tests today will be used to critically analyze complex ideas tomorrow. Additionally, if MEAP scores pressure teachers to focus on other fundamental skills like reading comprehension or writing, they serve a very valuable purpose.
The real concern about standardized tests and the MEAP is control. Because these tests are mandated and controlled by a state bureaucracy, the best interests of students often compete with the best interests of politicians. For instance, state bureaucrats eliminated the writing section of the MEAP test for large numbers of students last March. The reason? Test scores were depressingly low and the state feared sanctions and other ramifications under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Instead of working to develop students' writing skills, state bureaucrats just swept the problem under the rug.
Of course, bureaucratic control of school curriculum is only a problem because public education remains a government monopoly. If we empowered parents with the ability to choose their child's school, we would eliminate the problem of only being able to measure schools by their standardized tests. Parents, not politicians, would then decide which schools make the grade.
Michael Van Beek is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.