Teaching to a Test

Prompt: Many argue that most instructional design is merely “teaching to a test.” Whether it is K-12, higher education, or professional certification/continuing professional development, the debate concerns designing educational/training programs that focus on such an idea. The critique is that education programs should provide a broader and more in-depth learning exposure and experience than focusing on a narrow view sanctioned by some authority and their selected knowledge and learning outcomes. But, isn’t it a good idea that physicians, electricians, lawyers, mechanics, nutritionists, teachers, dentists, etc., are required to demonstrate ability and expertise in specific knowledge and skills?

DISCUSSION TOPIC: Instructional design develops educational programs that provide the instructor the tool to teach to a test/certification.

  • Is this statement factual or hype?

  • Is it ethical to teach to a test/certification?

  • Should we teach to a test/certification?

Whew.  Okay.  I have some pretty strong feelings when it comes to Instructional Design and testing - so this might just be a whammy of a post.  But - as always - I am 100% open to critique, feedback, and questions.

Taking the discussion topic at face value: Instructional design develops educational programs that provide the instructor the tool to teach to a test/certification.

Is this statement factual or hype?  Well - I'd change one word in that sentence and than I would wholeheartedly agree that is is "factual" (factual meaning a whole lot of people believe that it is true):
Instructional design develops educational training/schooling programs that provide the instructor the tool to teach to a test/certification.

There needs to be a distinction made between education and training/schooling - they are not the same thing.  Education is about creativity, innovation, inquiry, and reflection.  Training/schooling is about conformity, normatization (I know it's not "technically" a word) and standardization, measuring everything imaginable - even things that don't make any sense being measured, reductionism, efficiency, and procedural knowledge.

So, back to the first point.  Does instructional design develop training programs that provide an instructor with a tool to teach to a test/certification/some other "objective," normative, standardized, assessment?  Yes.

Is is ethical to teach to a test/certification?  That depends.

In the prompt, it is referenced that other professions such as engineering, medicine, and law include testing/certification procedures.  But - here again - we find ourselves asking the question: are we talking about schooling or education?

Is it ethical to develop content and test whether or not that content has been "mastered" (which is problematic in its own way)?  If the knowledge/content is rote information or procedural knowledge - then sure.  Test your heart out.

Real learning and true education cannot be subjected to testing and certification.

My surgeon could have aced his SATs, his med exams, and can name all of the bones and muscles of the body.  But that doesn't make him a good doctor.

If my lawyer can spout off dates and names of cases back to the 12th century - who cares?

And those that attempt to test/certify learning (not rote or procedural) do so at their own peril.  Who has the right to determine what is the "right" way to think?  What about what is "wrong"?  Are these categories universal?  Do they stand the test of time?  Do they apply across nations and cultures and age-groups and sexual orientations?

Why do we need to test (what I've called here) real learning?

Should we teach to a test/certification?

Heck no.  There are just so many problems with the rationality and the logic of this thinking that it's almost too hard to know where to start!!

Take me as a Pre-Algebra teacher from a few years ago as a middle school teacher.  I help make the final exam for the course.  I know that there are geometry problems on there, and I - being the excellent teacher that I am - know that we are not going to have the time to really study the geometry concepts that are on the exam.  What do I do?  Do I forgo all other lessons and conversations to focus intensely on geometry?  What of the geometry?  Only the questions that are on the exam?  Who does that serve?  How is that helpful to the children?  What is that teaching the kids - implicitly and explicitly?

I think way to often and way to frequently take for granted the enormous assumptions that we walk around making every day.  Why do we need to give a test?  Why?  Let's say we have two adults who take the same exact exam in a biology class.  One makes a 55 and the other a 90.  What does this REALLY mean?  Is the first person not as intelligent as the second?  Who studied more?  Does it matter?  What does it mean to "know" 90% worth of a test?  Does that mean mastery of a domain?  Or just part of the domain?  Who decides?  Is that 90% static or is it dynamic?  Will those two same individuals receive the same scores 2 years later on those tests?  If yes - then what does that mean?  If not - then what does that mean?

We made up tests.  And we made up certification.  We made it all up.  And we actually have more say in the power we give to these two concepts that we let on most of the time.

Should you have to be certified to be a mechanic?  Sure!  Why not!  Does passing certification make a good mechanic?  Nope.

I would prefer that my dentist know what she's doing before she goes drilling on my teeth.  But I don't think she learned how to take care of me as a patient on a test.


Originally posted on September 23, 2010 per the requirements of EAC 539: Teaching in the Online Environment at NC State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.


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