Fixed curricula are developed with a noble goal in mind: to help our children learn The Right Stuff. This goal provides the cornerstone of any educational system; it is beyond challenge. The way this goal is pursued, however, is not. In our system we pursue the goal of knowing The Right Stuff about history by translating it into the goal of knowing a series of dates. We implement the goal of knowing The Right Stuff about math by converting it into the goal of knowing a set of formulas or the steps of some proof. How has this happened?

The answer lies in the term, "teaching to the test." This term has gathered negative connotations, but it refers to a quite innocent practice. Tests play the central role in the incentive system underlying today's schools. Students are admitted to colleges based on how well they do on tests. Teachers receive raises based on the tests their students take. The measurements go all the way up the ladder. Even our sense of national pride partially hinges on how well this year's students do on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or whether we have beaten the Koreans at math.

Teaching to the test means tailoring the work of the classroom to the goal of improving scores on tests. Because the benefits of the education system are doled out on the basis of test results, teaching to the test would seem to be a sensible thing to do.

The problem is not only in the practice of teaching to the test, but in the tests themselves. The really important tests in the school system are mass produced and mass graded, thus they are populated with questions that have simple, objective answers. As a result, our national definition of what it means to be educated translates into how readily one can recognize the right word among five options listed after a multiple-choice question, or how quickly one can apply the right formula to a one-paragraph word problem.

Because most schools teach to these types of tests, they emphasize the memorization of facts and formulas. Then, we begin to believe the material that was taught primarily because it was easily testable was the right material to be taught in the first place. You might think that tests should be built around our conception of what it means to be educated. But today's tests are just the opposite. In today's system, tests do not so much derive from our notion of education, they drive it.

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