Helping Your Students Do Better on Their Tests or Teaching Them for Understanding—When to Make a Pedagogical Compromise?

Helping Your Students Do Better on Their Tests or Teaching Them for Understanding—When to Make a Pedagogical Compromise?

“The reason I got into teaching? To help students maximize test scores,” said no teacher or administrator ever. Sharing a love of learning and helping kids unlock their innate potential is a much more likely answer to that question, of course. So when is it okay to make a pedagogical compromise and prioritize test scores over understanding? The answer: absolutely never. 

Having established that as a core tenet, it’s healthy to revisit what is a “test” or an “assessment”. It is a set of exercises or a project that “tests” or “assesses” student understanding in one or more domains. Without assessing students, it is difficult for educators to determine proficiency levels in the classroom and meet students where they’re at. Without an assessment of knowledge, there is no differentiated learning and without differentiated learning, learning is dehumanized.

While assessments are necessary, standardized tests should not be used in any way as the sole data point for evaluating students. That is a firm stance that I will always take for many reasons, including:

  • Standardized tests create major stress on students and can adversely affect student confidence.
  • They evaluate student performance without considering external factors such as test anxiety, home life, or the fact that some kids are extremely bright but just don’t test well.

However, there are some domains where standardized tests are extremely effective at gathering information at scale with the goal of differentiating learning and improving student support. Tests will always be a single data point among a sea of many important ones, but for some areas, it’s a very helpful data point—particularly in literacy: math, reading, and writing. There are objective literacy truths we teach students to help them in school and beyond:

  • Math: 2+2= 4. (It’s not 5, it’s not 3.)
  • Writing: This sentence whom I’m writing are wrong, it do not have correct grammar. (Subject-verb agreement, punctuation, propositions, subjects-vs-objects are all facts of English grammar.)
  • Reading: In the two examples above, my tone is informative and I’m demonstrating my point through the use of examples. (A person reading this blog would employ reading comprehension skills to identify my tone and understand the point I’m trying to make.)

Standardized tests—with all their flaws—give us an inexpensive, efficient, and wide-scale way of measuring students’ grasp of these literacy fundamentals. This is why the world’s countries track literacy skills—and sometimes science—through renowned international assessments like the TIMSS, PISA, and PIRLS; and then use the results to work towards improving their learning outcomes.

At a narrower U.S.-centric level, the SAT and ACT—which used to be college-admission tests for individual students—have seen an increasing adoption as official state-mandated high school tests or K12 exit exams. This made them even more important for school and district administrators. These same test scores can now positively impact both college admission prospects at the student level, and overall school ratings and graduation rates at the school or district level. With all these changes, many are asking: is there a way for teachers to keep the focus solely on learning while also giving all students what they need to succeed on these exams?

Don’t be overwhelmed by tests! Photo by Pixabay on

Enhancing the Classroom Experience

There are a lot of ACT and SAT solutions out there, but more often than not, they are bandaid “test-prep” programs that try to “game the system” by focusing on short-term memorization and test-taking strategies. They may increase scores a bit if done right within close proximity from  the date of the official test, but they don’t do much to support true learning at the individual level. They also often minimize the role of the teacher to a proctor of endless practice questions and practice tests. 

In building ChalkTalk, we focused on using technology that enhances the classroom experience and amplifies a teacher’s instruction for deeper learning. Only about five percent of ChalkTalk content is focused on “test prep” such as providing students with an overview of the test format, timing, and scoring, as well as going over some test-taking strategies such as “effective multiple-choice answer elimination.” The rest of our curriculum is focused on core ELA and math skills, and aligned to U.S. state standards. By doing this, ChalkTalk leads to higher scores on tests and better grades in ELA and math classes—almost as an accidental byproduct.

Our adaptive approach means that content for every class is personalized at the classroom level, small group level, and student level.  The end result? ELA and math score improvements equivalent to as high as five grade levels, according to the official college and career readiness benchmarks from the ACT and SAT

Improved Understanding, Improved Scores

“Teaching to the test” is not something that any educator or student should spend their time doing. But good instruction will often lead to higher scores on “assessments”—which by definition are means of “assessing” student comprehension. With ChalkTalk, teachers can effortlessly personalize instruction to engage every student—and with that deeper learning, higher ACT and SAT scores will follow. 

As planning for the next school year ramps up, contact us today to learn more about how ChalkTalk can help teachers balance improved understanding with increased scores for students taking ACT and SAT.

Author: Mohannad Arbaji, ChalkTalk Founder & CEO

Favorite Test-Taking Tip: The best way to prepare for a timed test is to ignore the time and master the content in an untimed setting first. Only once you’re answering practice questions correctly and you feel like you understand the content well, start pacing yourself and factoring in time-per-question.

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