For more than 200 Missouri teachers, this year's summer vacation is an opportunity to spend three weeks doing something that is part of their jobs during the school year: grading tests.
These tests are the Missouri Assessment Program tests, which are given to students in grades three through seven and nine through 11 in communication arts, math, science, social studies and health/physical education.
Part of the test is multiple choice, and the test publisher evaluates that portion by computer. But the other part of the test is handwritten answers to questions that expect students to show they understand how to answer, not just give a factually correct response.
It is no surprise that 216 teachers around the state signed on to be MAP test graders this summer. They all spoke of the insights they are learning -- and will share with their colleagues -- about how to prepare students to take the tests.
Of course, each of the teacher-graders has signed a form saying he or she will not disclose actual test questions or answers. But the teachers are interested in how students answer and how those answers are evaluated.
"Teaching to the test" has become something of an ugly phrase for opponents of mandatory student testing designed to gauge how well teachers are preparing their students and how well students are learning what is being taught.
But the plain fact is that preparation for any test ought to be aimed at getting students prepared to know the right answers. It doesn't matter whether the test is a true-false test, multiple-choice test, fill-in-the-blank test or essay test.
Essay tests, of course, generally allow more leeway for students to demonstrate their understanding of the information being taught rather than simply recalling a fact or date or mathematical process. For many Missouri teachers, it has been difficult to determine exactly what the MAP tests expected from students' answers to essay questions.
As it turns out, the teachers who are grading the tests are finding out the MAP-test essay questions are being graded mainly for what the students think and not necessarily on the mechanics of answering the question. Penmanship, neatness and other factors that often affect test scores in the classroom are less important to the MAP test than showing an ability to think about a questions and give thoughtful and informed responses.
With this information, teachers who are helping to grade the MAP tests will be able to return to their classrooms with a bit more confidence about preparing students for these state-mandated reviews. And they will be able to share their ideas with other teachers.
If this extra insight promotes "teaching to the test," good. Any test that doesn't warrant this aim would be a signal of a faulty curriculum. The more teachers understand about a testing process, the better they can do their jobs.