I largely agree with Sara’s take on the debate at present about teaching to the test. The problem now lies largely in the incentives for a race to the bottom in state tests, and in the poor multiple choice tests that states are using (to be fair, in part b/c of the expense of creating so many tests).
But what is lost in this debate is why we wanted to move to a standards-based system in the first place. If you go back and look at the movement to create standards-based reform in the early 1990s, you will see two critical assumptions that have gotten lost in the intervening years: 1) That the purpose of setting standards was to move away from the American view of tests (like the SATs) whose purpose was to sort students on fixed notions of ability, and to move instead to challenging criterion referenced tests, which were more sensitive to effort, and set an absolute bar that both students and teachers could work towards. 2) That the tests themselves would reflect really higher-order thinking skills. People like Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy who had gone to look at the European models we were intending to emulate came back with stories that the best end of high school exams looked like college bluebook exams–e.g., essay questions that asked student to draw parallels between the French and American revolutions. These kind of exams, Tucker argued, were sensitive to effort: you knew you needed to know about the American and French revolutions to do well on them. But they were not sensitive to “test prep,” in that there was no way to game it — you had to know both revolutions, you had to be able to write, and you had to be able to think at a level that allowed you to see connections between the two. That’s a standards-based system that I think a large majority of us could support.
How did we get from here to there? The idea of setting challenging standards, in terms of higher expectations, was widely embraced by all but the fiercest local control advocates; teachers supported this movement through the activites of their subject matter associations, most notably the NCTM in 1989. But policymakers became impatient with the pace of change, and the institutional conservatism of a school system that was not responding or even implementing state and particularly federal reforms. The result, somewhat understandably, was an emphasis on the accountability functions of testing as a mechanism to force improvement, which in turn required annual testing and high stakes, which has led to off the shelf tests, states lowering standards, and a fair amount of teachers teaching to the test in the narrowest sense. There is plenty of blame to go around here, but it is revealing to see the distance we’ve traveled from our initial hopes to our current reality.