Those who want assessment to drive instruction toward new learning theories often remind us that "What you test is what you get." That is, tests determine not only the content but also the format of instruction. Shepard (1989) found that in response to externally mandated tests:
"Teachers taught the precise content of the tests rather than underlying concepts; and skills were taught in the same format as the test rather than as they would be used in the real world. For example, teachers reported giving up essay tests because they are inefficient in preparing students for multiple-choice tests."
In schools or classrooms using multiple-choice tests, instruction tends to emphasize drill and practice on decontextualized skills, reflecting the emphasis of many multiple-choice tests. As Romberg, Zarinna, and Williams (1989) point out:
"A study of eighth grade [mathematics] teachers from every state revealed that the majority of teachers make instructional changes as a result of mandated tests, and the nature of those changes is at odds with the recommendations of the curriculum and evaluation standards. For example, in response to the use of such tests teachers increase their emphasis on basic skills and pencil-and-paper computation and decrease their emphasis on project work, the use of technology, and cooperative effort."
Rather than increasing test scores, however, this focus on endless skill and drill can actually have the opposite effect: "Not surprisingly, students given instruction aimed at conceptual understanding do better on skills tests than students drilled on the skills directly (Carpenter, Fennema, Peterson, Chiang, & Loef, 1988)" (in Shepard, 1989, p. 6). Indeed, it can be harmful to postpone instruction in higher-order thinking skills (such as problem-solving) until low-level skills (such as computation) have been mastered. Students learn by doing. After all, how many of us learned to write by endlessly practicing on vocabulary tests, grammar worksheets, and spelling lessons? We learned by writing and by correcting our own errors. Of course, students - particularly new learners - need some direct practice in skills, but low-achieving students suffer the most from this approach, because if their initial test scores are low, they often are given dull and repetitive skills instruction that does not enable them to grasp underlying concepts (Levin, 1987).