The rights and wrongs of testing

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‘Testing’ is a divisive term even if most teachers accept the need for ‘assessment’. I thought it might be worth discussing some of the issues surrounding testing with a view to avoiding the pitfalls.

Testing times

There are a few teachers and educationalists that have funny ideas about assessment. For instance, one fashionable view is that all assessment should be ‘authentic’ and involve the creation of complex projects or presentations. This is actually quite a bad idea for reasons that I will mention later.

However, I suspect that most teachers take a less dogmatic view and see assessment as a part of everyday teaching. And the evidence suggests that it should be. The Testing Effect – now re-branded as ‘retrieval practice’ – is well established. Asking students to recall information and concepts actually enhances learning. So we have a third purpose of assessment to add to those of benchmarking against a standard and of providing information to feed into the next round of teaching. Now, we have summative, formative and instructional assessment.

Nevertheless, these positive results sit in a context of some teachers and parents arguing for boycotts of ‘standardised tests’ and such testing generally being seen as a kind of evil conspiracy.

Standardised tests

I think standardised tests are really valuable. Most of the assessment that I conduct as a teacher is formative and often looks nothing like the kinds of questions you see on standardised tests. Yet the very fact that these tests are standardised is useful. It enables schools to mark their progress against other schools in the state.

Yes, we need to take into account contextual factors – and this often is not well done – but relative performance is still worth knowing. On the background of a general trend will be superimposed those schools who face difficult circumstances yet somehow manage to do very well, as well as those schools with pretty advantaged students who are doing badly. If nothing else, there is an argument that a system that attracts so many tax dollars needs to be open and accountable to taxpayers.

However, the way that many schools approach preparation for standardised tests is deeply troubling and this is what causes the problems.

Practice, practice, practice

If you don’t actually know how to teach something then your fallback position might be to endlessly ask children to do it in the hope that something rubs-off. This seems to be the strategy employed by schools that run students through endless rehearsals of the standardised test.

Students certainly should complete a practice test, especially if the test has unfamiliar kinds of items on it or it takes place in a different room such as an exam hall. Yes, you can quietly pass-off past test items as ordinary questions in lessons and this will help with familiarity. But there is nothing like having a go at the whole thing in the right conditions. Done well, such a practice test will help to allay students’ concerns.

However, if you endlessly cycle students through practice tests then you communicate to them that this test really matters. You transfer some of your anxiety as a teacher onto the students. And you will be feeling anxious because the only reason you are following this strategy is because you can’t think of anything else to do.

Components

One of the most important tasks in teaching is to identify the component parts that make-up a complex performance. If you ask students to write a persuasive piece of writing – the typical writing task in Australia’s NAPLAN assessments – then you are asking them to synthesise motor skills, spelling and grammar skills, understandings about paragraphs, topics sentences and the use of evidence as well as generate interesting ideas.

This places students’ working memories under a lot of strain. If a student forgets to paragraph her response then this could be because she doesn’t have a good conception of paragraphing or it could be because this dropped off the list of things that she was capable of simultaneously paying attention to. You don’t know. So what should you write in your paragraph of written ‘feedback’ at the end of her argument? Well, in a sense it doesn’t matter because she is only likely to be able to take on a couple of pieces of advice and you’ve probably already written three bullet-points about other aspects of her performance.

This is not a good way to go about things. Instead, it may be better to target something, work on that and then assess it. For instance, you could teach your students about topic sentences, explain what they are and live model the creation of a few on the board. You could then assess whether they can identify topic sentences through a multiple choice quiz before asking them to generate their own topic sentences and assess that.

Yes, there are an awful lot of different aspects of writing that you can teach and assess like this and that’s why you need a systematic plan for which ones to address and when. You also need a plan for bringing these components together once you know that students can handle them in isolation. The beauty of assessing in this way is that you can directly associate the assessment evidence with the episode of teaching. It gives you agency.

Don’t be afraid

Testing can be stressful and, sometimes, it should be, but we don’t need to place students under as much pressure as we sometimes do at the moment. Schools have to take responsibility for this, just like they have to take responsibility for teaching the kids. Stress is often the result of a feeling of helplessness and so the best way to fight it is often to have a plan and take control: teachers and student alike.

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2 Comments on “The rights and wrongs of testing”

  1. drentsminger says:

    I always get a little concerned when education systems or school districts put so much emphasis on standardized testing, and the results are then used to evaluate teacher effectiveness. For starters, there are far too many variables going on in a classroom/the lives of students/the school itself/etc. While using standardized tests (or the data that result from them) it is extremely difficult to isolate variables that contribute to success or lack thereof. I ponder the question, “Well, if students did poorly, is it a result of an aspect of the curriculum the teacher is using, the teacher himself, the students themselves, the way the questions were phrased on the standardized test (which could somewhat be alleviated if students are engaging in systematic practice tests), the notion that many standardized tests are not developmentally appropriate for students, etc. I’m not making excuses. But, I am a part of my district’s leadership team focused on academic improvement, and we have to use these results to inform some of the decisions we make (which requires a high level of data literacy). I see the importance of certain standardized measures of achievement, especially while working on this team and making decisions to improve district academics. However, I can’t help but wonder if making decisions based on the results of tests that we know are flawed (or at least somewhat flawed) is what’s actually best for kids?

    And, of course, like you mentioned above, practice, practice, practice… Studies have shown that heavy emphasis on the usage of standardized tests and their results often leads to “teaching to the test.” This results not from the lack of teaching methods/approaches/skills on the part of the teacher, but because of the fear of punitive consequences associated with poor standardized test scores.


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