A debate has been raging in education policy over the use of standardized tests for accountability purposes. This discussion is very heated in Florida, where results on the state’s high- stakes test are used to decide whether students graduate high school and whether vouchers are offered to students at chronically failing public schools.
Opponents claim that high-stakes tests force educators to “teach to the test” by abandoning real learning for the memorization of a narrow set of skills and test-taking strategies. But a new study by the Manhattan Institute’s Education Research Office demonstrates that this concern is unfounded: The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test effectively measures whether students are acquiring more general knowledge and not just a narrow set of skills to pass the test.
Though educators complain that they are forced to change their curricula and teaching techniques to focus exclusively on getting their students to pass the FCAT, it is important to realize that this “teaching to the test” is a bad thing only if the test does not effectively measure a broad set of knowledge.
Teaching to the test can be a positive development if it means that teachers are being guided to teach the general knowledge that we expect students to acquire while in school, like learning to read and do math.
Most discussions of high-stakes testing and teaching to the test fail to make this distinction between the negative version, in which students are drilled only on narrow skills, and the positive version, in which the test guides teachers and schools to teach the general knowledge that we think students need to learn.
Our study attempts to find out which type of teaching to the test is occurring in Florida schools. Are Florida students learning only narrow skills to pass a test, or does the test force them to acquire broader knowledge?
In our analysis we compared schools’ results on the FCAT with results on the SAT-9, a highly respected measure of student achievement administered to all Florida students. Since the results on the SAT-9 are not used for any accountability purposes, there is no reason for schools to “teach to” this test. If educators have abandoned real learning to teach skills relevant only to the FCAT, then results on the FCAT should have little or no relationship with a school’s performance on the low-stakes SAT- 9.
However, this is not the case. In fact, we found very strong correlations between the results of the high- stakes FCAT and the low-stakes SAT- 9 in all subjects tested, in all grades, and even in the improvement of scores over time in each school. The average correlation between scores from the FCAT and SAT-9 was very high at 0.96 (if the results were identical, the correlation would be 1.00). The average correlation between the year-to-year gains on FCAT and SAT- 9 scores was also very strong at 0.71. These results tell us that to whatever extent it has occurred, teaching to the FCAT has contributed to student performance on broader measures of student learning, such as the SAT-9, where there were no incentives to teach to that test.
Our findings suggest that if Florida teachers are focusing exclusively on FCAT material, as some claim, then in doing so, they are teaching skills that are generally useful rather than useful only to pass a single standardized test. By forcing teachers to alter their curricula and teaching techniques in order to get their students to pass the FCAT, Florida has forced them to better prepare their students for life outside the classroom walls.
The evidence suggests that the FCAT has effectively communicated to teachers and schools what general knowledge they must teach and provided them with incentives to ensure that students acquire that knowledge.