To test or not to test, what’s the benefit?
Had I been asked the question above, I believe my answer would be sort of evasive. I’m not particularly in favour of using tests as the only way to assess learning, but I also have a hard time believing tests are all bad. What I believe in, though, is that there are well-written tests and poorly made tests – and I also believe that fewer and fewer people have actually learned how to write a test. Much on the contrary, it seems we, educators, are all onboard with the view that tests do very little to help learners go beyond the remembering stage of learning. What I get from most talks about tests is that we equate tests with standardised testing, and that as fewer teachers are brave enough to say that tests may be useful, we are witnessing a time in which tests are getting simpler and simpler to score, and, consequently, demanding more memorisation skills than learning from students.
However, as William Shakespeare said, “There is a tide in the affairs of men…”, and we have to take advantage of things as they happen, so I decided to take advantage of a recommended article by one of the members of my PLN I grew to admire due to her insights and always amazingly packed with important information yet straight to the point comments and blog posts, @ssuzip. And even though Susi hasn’t made clear what her opinion is regarding this matter, I’m going to put myself out in the open and grant any kind of criticism that may come so I can maybe change my mind on the topic, or at least have better arguments the next time I write or talk about it.
The article was published on The New York Times on January 20th, and it’s title is To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test. As you’ve got it by now, it is in favour of testing as a learning tool. What comes to mind is that most of our parents and grandparents were educated in a system that praised tests. Furthermore, and I don’t think this is only nostalgia, standards were higher in terms of actually learning what you were supposed to learn. There weren’t things such as ADHD, as Sir Ken Robinson pointed out well here, and the whole concept of an affective side to education wasn’t really that big a deal. Nowadays, with the decline of another very important institution – family – schools have to bend over backwards to try to cater for both the cognitive and affective growth. On the one hand, this has helped us see there are numerous benefits in taking the learner as a whole human being. On the other hand, well, it may at times drive us away from our main goal of teaching and making sure our students achieve what they can fully achieve. Now, if all teachers were just as the ones who are likely to actually read this blog, I’d be completely off my rocker to say such a thing. Nevertheless, no matter how hard our PLN is, we’re still far from being the majority.
Unfortunately, there are many teachers who claim to be against tests without having ever read anything from, say, Alfie Kohn to back them up. I myself can’t say I’m familiar with his work, but most people whose blogs I visit and who are firm in their opinion of abandoning tests tend to consistently citing Kohn. The problem is not saying tests are good or bad – the problem is not being able to reason on your own whether they are good or bad. Coming back to the article and my beliefs towards testing, I must say I saw myself arguing with the text many times while reading it. For instance,
“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.”
The very first thing to think about there regards the concept of learning. Had Mr. Karpicke stopped at retrieving, I’d probably stop reading the article right there. However, I agree with his view of learning as the ability to using what we’ve already seen and being able to adapt and make effective use of such memory. Shall we compare it to Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains and focus on the cognitive domain? We need to remember what we have learned, but this has got to come into being with some sort of purpose, which will lead us to the following step – making use of what we’ve just remembered. In this regard, the very first thing (and, unfortunately, the only thing in some cases) tests do is make us retrieve information. Moving on with the article, we find out that students who are going to be tested have the feeling they don’t know as much as they should. In comparison, those students who are allowed to create diagrams and concept maps for the sake of learning, but who know they are not going to be tested, have the feeling they know pretty much everything they need to know. It turned out in research that the result was exactly the opposite when students were asked to remember the subject one week later.
Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it and creating cues and connections that our brains later recognize.
However, in order for such things to take place, we’ve got to be able to write good tests. It can’t all be about rote learning and memorising passages. Tests can be used in education; let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I guess the very first thing is keeping an open mind. As Howard Gardner, and education professor at Harvard said,
the results “throw down the gauntlet to those progressive educators, myself included. Educators who embrace seemingly more active approaches, like concept mapping,” he continued, “are challenged to devise outcome measures that can demonstrate the superiority of such constructivist approaches.”
The final word on testing in education, in my humble opinion, is yet to be said. I am, however, not in favour of abandoning tests altogether. I don’t think tests should be the only source of assessment in the classroom, either. My final quote from the article comes from Dr. Marcia Linn, “Some tests are just not learning opportunities. We need a different kind of testing than we currently have.” I guess she’s just touched the crux of the matter. As a teacher, I have to say that I had to learn about writing tests on my own, and I did take the time to read about it and look for data on the matter. This is not what most people who started teaching with me have done, though. It seems to be a big gamble and, in this hit-or-miss game of ours, more misses are made than hits, which only proves to strengthen the view that tests aren’t beneficial for learning. Add to that the fact that tests have become a million dollar business, and you’ll see that most people who advocate for tests aren’t exactly worried about learning. This, obviously, make them an easy prey for educators who, once again, see others not only making money out of something they consider serious – children’s learning – but also see those people doing things that make us, educators, look bad. We want to help children learn, testing companies want to make children take as many tests as possible so they can profit from them.
As my final words, I add that I agree with Penny Ur when she says that tests are one of the many sources of extrinsic motivation that teachers have control over in class. Just as anything, it can’t be overused. If tests are well-written, they can certainly help in the learning process. To what extent? This seems to be uncertain at the moment, but if we don’t keep an open mind, we might end up doing more harm than good by abandoning tests just because we want to follow the trend.