User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Why do we give tests? What purpose does it serve?

with 4 comments

I absolutely have no idea why educational institutions use tests to presumably measure student learning.   I believe that tests provide an illusion that something has been learned, one that all stakeholders; teachers, administrators, parents, and students, themselves, have bought into.

I do not give tests.  I have taught undergraduate and graduate level college, gifted elementary students, middle school physical science and K-8 PE; and never give paper and pencil tests. One of my missions as an educator is to provide students with transferable life skills. I do not believe that the ability to take tests is one of them.  Would a vast majority of learners say . . .  “Wow, I can’t wait, we get to take tests at school today.”  “I found that test totally engaging.  I was in a state of flow”

Prior to going forward, let me clearly state that I believe that are qualitative differences between assessment, measure, and tests. I think that feedback and assessment are important aspects of the learning cycle, but am unclear how tests, in their traditional form, provide students with feedback that lead to increased personal performance.  Human learning is often complex, multifaceted, and idiosyncratic so to attempt to quantify it, often to a single number, really diminishes and minimizes this incredible experience.

As Cathy Davidson discussed in How Do We Measure What Really Counts In The Classroom?

Education has not yet moved past the standardized assessment, which was invented in 1914. Frederick Kelly, a doctoral student in Kansas, was looking for a mass-produced way to address a teacher shortage caused by World War I. If Ford could mass produce Model T’s, why not come up with a test for “lower order thinking” for the masses of immigrants coming into America just as secondary education was made compulsory and all the female teachers were working in factories while their men went to the European front? Even Kelly was dismayed when his emergency system, which he called the Kansas Silent Reading Test, was retained after the war ended. By 1926, a variation of Kelly’s test was adopted by the College Entrance Examination Board as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The rest is history.

But because the No Child Left Behind national law began requiring the standardized tests for all students since 2002, it takes them one to two years to retrain these great students not to think in terms of single-best-answer (multiple choice) options. They have to make them “unlearn” the skill of guessing the best answer from five available ones (a pretty useless skill in the workplace), and begin to “relearn” how to think about what they do or don’t really understand about a situation, who to go to in order to find out, and what they need to do to have the best results. In other words, whether we are 1st or 17th, we’re failing at testing what we really value in the workplace. There is an extreme mismatch between what we value and how we count.

Leon Nevfakh, in a Boston Globe article, discusses the implications of the Harvard cheating scandal in What to test instead

Being successful in today’s world, as we all now recognize, requires more than an ability to think quickly and recall facts on command. And our education system has, however fitfully, moved to address those values. The problem is that our tests still lag behind.

“[Historically], the testing industry, because it was pragmatic, only tested what it was easy to test,” said James Paul Gee, a professor at Arizona State University. “But as a parent, I don’t want you to just test what’s easy to test, I want you to test what’s important to test.”

In terms of developing more authentic assessments, Nevfakh notes:

Using new testing ideas like computer simulations, games, and stealth monitoring, they are trying to take what they believe is a huge and necessary leap—changing the test as we know it from a fixed measurement of what a student can remember on a particular day, to something far more dynamic and informative.

The researchers at the forefront of test design also have a bigger dream, rooted in the idea that tests aren’t just a static part of education, but can actively shape what teachers teach and what students learn. If you can really build smarter, more sophisticated tests, they say, you can change education itself.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

September 22, 2012 at 5:33 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I think it is really valuable to be raising these qs about assessment. We do want to know if students are learning. Qs are learning what and how to measure, in a formative way, how different kinds of learning should be assessed to provide valuable feedback. Enjoyed the following link.


    September 22, 2012 at 11:54 pm

  2. I do perfectly agree with you Jackie about un-tested skills and testing useless is much easier to use tests than more sophisticated and “customized” assessments and many teachers now lack motivation – “why shall I have to spend more energy if what I have been asked to do is this little?”
    Being a good teacher is like being a good parent – motivation must be found in what you see in front of you.


    September 24, 2012 at 6:28 am

  3. Wouldn’t it be better if you do both tests and assessments? Perhaps there are some students that want to take tests. They might want to see for themselves if they understand the subject being taught by doing a test. Some students are comfortable with that. As a teacher I sometimes give tests, but I don’t always grade the tests. It is what it says: a test for the students to see for themselves where they are.

    Marcel V

    October 5, 2012 at 3:11 am

  4. I have struggled with assessments in the past. After stumbling on this post, I feel renewed in my quest for answers. Perhaps there is no “right answer”. BEing in the question is powerful enough. While I see the importance for national standards, I know I can not assess my students the same way as those living in other states. I strongly believe in formative assessments as a guide to help me facilitate instruction. I agree that not enough teachers customize summative tests. I want my student feeling confident and prepared to share what they have learned. I will continue to assess the assessment. I will continue to do what is best for the majority of students. I will continue to question what “really” matters within four walls of a classroom to help them thrive in what is outside of those walls.


    February 26, 2017 at 8:18 pm

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