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Editor’s Note: Many teachers say that the need to prepare students for standardized tests is a significant barrier to using Project Based Learning. In this guest post, the co-founder of Understanding by Design explains how to rethink test prep to make room for deeper learning such as PBL. This is the second part of Jay McTighe’s post of April 3, 2017, Beware of the Test Prep Trap.

There are opportunity costs to consider when precious classroom time and energy are devoted to test prep, and excessive test prep can have significant negative consequences. When classroom instruction and assessment fixates excessively on the multiple-choice format, meaningful learning is sacrificed and students are likely to become bored and disengaged by repeated drills on decontextualized items that lack relevance. Judy Willis, MD, a board-certified neurologist who left her medical practice to become a teacher, has written extensively on the brain and learning. She addresses the negative consequences of test prep in a recent article (Willis, 2012):

Boredom, frustration, negativity, apathy, self-doubt, and the behavioral manifestations of these brain stressors have increased in the past decade. As facts increase, as over-packed curriculum expands, and as demands for rote memorization for high-stakes testing intensify, the brains of our students have reacted to the increased stress. Stress, including that provoked by sustained or frequent boredom or frustration, detours brain processing away from the higher, rational, prefrontal cortex. In the stress state, the lower, reactive brain is in control. Retrievable memory is not formed, and behavioral responses are limited to involuntary fight/flight/freeze-seen in the classroom as acting out, zoning out, or dropping out.

In short, it doesn’t matter how many practice tests we give; if the learners are not engaged or fail to see the purpose, their learning will not be optimized and performance on high-stakes tests will not be bolstered.

Don’t take my word; ask yourself:  Teachers – To what extent are your students motivated and genuinely engaged by test prep?  Administrators – Do your best teachers claim that test prep is their favorite or most effective teaching practice?  Parents – Do your children rave about the joys of test prep at the dinner table?

The pressures to improve accountability test scores can result in a narrowing of the curriculum. It is often the case that the tested subjects receive greater attention compared to those not tested. Indeed, we have witnessed schools and districts that have doubled up on reading and mathematics instructional time while reducing or eliminating the arts and/or health and physical education. Sadly, for many students, these are the most engaging subjects in their school day.

The use of precious classroom time for test prep can distort students’ perception of the nature of schooling. They could easily conclude that a primary mission of schools is to improve test taking savvy and raise test scores rather than to strive for meaningful learning. Moreover, a focus on multiple-choice teaching and testing can convey the fallacious idea that navigating school and life is simply a matter of choosing the “correct” answer from 4 or 5 alternatives!

Ironically, the widespread use of test preparation practices based on narrow, inauthentic assessments can unwittingly undermine the very “college and career” readiness competencies identified in national and state standards and for the development of 21st century skills. Many educators and policy makers worry that important educational goals (e.g., discussion and debate, extended writing for real audiences, research, teamwork, creative problem solving, expression in the arts, or substantive research and experimental inquiry) that are not easily and cheaply tested are likely to “fall through the cracks.” To be blunt, students will not be equipped to handle the sophisticated work expected in colleges and much of the workforce if teachers simply march through a superficial “coverage” of discrete knowledge and skills in grade-level standards and assess learning primarily through multiple-choice tests of de-contextualized items.

So, What Should Be Done?                                                                          
It would be naïve, indeed irresponsible, to dismiss the reality of high-stakes accountability tests by imploring educators to ignore them or suggesting that if teachers simply “teach well and love the children” the test scores will take care of themselves. As noted, it is prudent to introduce students to the test format. However, beware of mistaking the measures for the goals. Excessive “multiple-choice” teaching and practice testing are not the best long-term strategies for developing a well-rounded, educated person or realizing significant improvements in scores on annual accountability tests.

I contend that the best way to raise test scores over the long haul is to: 1) teach the key concepts and processes contained in standards (the content that is purportedly tested) in rich and engaging ways for deep learning; 2) collect evidence of student understanding of that content via more authentic local assessments; and 3) regularly review student work on authentic tasks in Professional Learning Communities (McTighe, 2008).

To summarize, I offer the following set of Do’s and Don’ts as more effective alternatives to test prep.

In sum, beware the test prep trap.



McTighe, Jay. Measuring what matters: Part 1 – The case for an assessment overhaul. In What’s Working in Schools Newsletter, December 2010. Bloomington, IN: The Hope Foundation.

McTighe, Jay. (2013). Core Learning: Assessing What Matters Most. Midvale, UT: School Improvement Network

McTighe, Jay. Making the most of professional learning communities. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council. Volume 3, Number 8, May 2008.

McTighe, J., Seif, E., and Wiggins, G. You can teach for meaning. In Educational Leadership. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Volume 62, Number 1, September, 2004.

Webb, N. L. (2006). Identifying content for assessing student achievement. Chapter 8. In S. M. Downing & T. M. Haladyna (Eds.), Handbook of test development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006.

Wiggins, Grant. Radical test prep. In Granted, and... blogpost. Authentic Education, April 2013.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. Yes, but... Misconceptions about standards-based reforms. Unpublished article. October 2001.

Willis, Judy. Bad for the brain: Goodbye to unsustainable education models. In Edutopia. San Rafael, CA: The George Lucas Educational Foundation. June 2012.


Comments or questions about test prep in the context of PBL? Please leave them below.