How to Teach to the Test (in a Good Way)

How to Teach to the Test (in a Good Way)

Teachers know that there are vast differences between the work students are asked to do in school and the standardized tests they must take to prove their learning.

These differences have created a test preparation industry that runs parallel to mainstream education. It make sense: test prep techniques are often anathema to real learning, so teachers cannot always teach these techniques in class. Over time, the idea of “teaching to the test” has become synonymous with poor teaching.

We know it doesn’t have to be this way, and this series is intended to provide a way forward for teachers. In this first post, I’ll discuss how and why standardized tests are different from classroom work. In the second and third post of this series, I’ll talk about specific ways teachers can integrate test preparation into their English and math classes while still supporting real learning.

It’s important to realize that the very format of a standardized test necessitates several key differences:

multiple choice

As opposed to short answers or essays, students must choose from a limited number of choices. This creates room for smart elimination, guessing, and skipping strategies that have little or no place in the classroom.


Because these tests must avoid demographic bias and serve as a benchmark for large populations, the test is based on empirical reasoning. So, for example, instead of using outside information to develop original or multiple interpretations for texts, students must use discrete pieces of evidence found in the text to support one answer choice. While nuanced interpretations should also be based on textual evidence, a standardized test’s one-to-one correspondence of evidence to answer is more direct than in the classroom discussions or essays to which students are accustomed. This is also true, to some extent, on AP and SAT II subject tests: any outside information students must bring to bear in answering a question will come from a generally-established canon of material. Check each test maker’s website for a list of topics students are expected to know.


Since the tests don’t want to favor one group of students over another, the tests draw on unfamiliar texts that students are not likely to have encountered in school. This means that students are forced to work on texts for which they have no context, grounding, or footholds for understanding, unlike in the classroom, where a teacher carefully introduces a text and develops scaffolding that helps students enter a text.


The length of the test itself is a challenge to students, who are not accustomed to performing such focused work at a high level for an extended period of time.

time limitations

Because standardized tests are timed, students face time management challenges that are non-existent with homework assignments or research papers.

scoring limitations

Especially with writing-based testing, scoring limitations encourage a focus on rigid argumentation over nuanced persuasion or discussion. Even with multiple choice type grammar questions, students are asked to correct grammatical errors instead of producing grammatically-correct prose. This again is due to scoring limitations—there are multiple ways to write a sentence, but the number of ways an incorrect sentence can be revised can be limited. Of course, students rarely correct errors in others’ writing in class; this is the teacher’s job!

Pretending that traditional classroom work will prepare students to overcome these challenges on their own helps no one; instead, teachers should acknowledge and explain these differences to their students.

Using some standardized test materials in class and for homework can help elucidate the differences and begin to acclimate students to standardized formats. Further, practicing with standardized test materials will develop students’ endurance levels and time management skills. Teachers can also create lesson plans that address standardized assessment methods in order to achieve curriculum goals like proofreading and revision skills, familiarity with geometry formulas, and more.

Even though the techniques used on standardized tests often go against the methods that teachers want their students to use on school assignments, acknowledging the differences can be the first step to instructing students on when it is appropriate to use which techniques. Teachers can also change instruction or classroom format when focusing on testing skills. Set up a classroom debate, game show, or other competition. Change the desks around or use a different teaching persona when doing test prep. This will enable students to practice for tests while distinguishing test-appropriate techniques from classroom-appropriate techniques.

In short, be explicit with students!

Don’t try to sneak test prep into your classroom; integrate it into your lessons while acknowledging that it requires different skills and attitudes.

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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