What is “teaching to the test,” and can one detect evidence of this practice in state test scores? This paper unpacks this concept and empirically investigates one variant of it by analyzing test item–level data from three states’ mathematics and reading tests. We show that NCLB-era state tests predictably emphasized some state standards while consistently excluding others; a small number of standards typically accounted for a substantial fraction of test points. We find that students performed better on items testing frequently assessed standards—those that composed a larger fraction of the state test in prior years—which suggests that teachers targeted their instruction towards these predictably tested skills. We conclude by describing general principles that should guide high-stakes test construction if a policy goal is to ensure that test score gains accurately represent gains in student learning.
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