Does teaching to the test improve student learning?
A central concern surrounding test-based accountability is that teachers may narrow teaching practices to improve test performance on a curriculum-based specific knowledge test rather than student learning more broadly. Two of the most common teaching practices that “teach to the test” are providing test-specific classwork and increasing the frequency with which students take practice tests. Whether such teaching practices improve student learning—both in terms of learning the content associated with a specific knowledge test as well as more general learning—is a largely unanswered question. To approach this question, this paper uses a student fixed effects approach to analyze the impact of these kinds of narrow teaching practices on student performance on a specific test as well as a general knowledge test. We find that test-specific classwork and practice tests with specific test items tend to have little or negative impacts on curriculum specific or general knowledge test performance, except for male students, and that subject practice tests (without emphasizing test-specific items) have positive effects on student outcomes on both kinds of tests, but larger on the curriculum-specific than on the general test, and much larger on the curriculum-specific test for male students. We discuss the logic for these results and what they tell us about the effectiveness of test-focused teaching practices more generally.