Friday, February 25, 2011

Teaching Everyone Some Terrible Stuff (TESTS), Part I

If you are required to take one test or quiz every week of your school life, you could end up taking roughly 400 of them in twelve years. And you will be required to complete all 400 of these school tests all by yourself. You have to know or correctly guess sixty-five percent of the answers at the time of the test to be considered passing. What will these kinds of tests teach you? Something Terrible: that it is really important to know all the answers. That you are a failure if you don't remember or don't understand or never learned something. How will this prepare you for life after school?

Sure, you could grow up to be someone, like a surgeon or a pilot, who will be faced with a lot of really important decisions. But even in these high-profile careers, you would have access to help most of the time, when needed. And it would be especially important for you to know when you needed help and seek it out, so you might avoid making a stupid mistake. It would only be in an unusual situation where you would have to make a completely independent decision when you weren't quite sure what to do. But this is why you wouldn't be allowed to perform surgery or fly planes without first amassing lots of knowledge and training and practice specific to these situations. This is different from compulsory schooling because, well, it's not compulsory. Anyone who is in training to be a surgeon or pilot has freely chosen his path, knowing in advance what it will entail, and being free to stop at any point. Any test taken along this path is taken by choice.

Admittedly, there will be some times when all of us will have to make decisions or solve problems without being able to consult a friend, or Google. For example, when driving cars, we have to make decisions that could even mean the difference between living and dying. But I'm pretty sure that what gets me through these times is my experience with and knowledge about driving, and maybe a little bit of luck, and has little to do with how many tests I ever took on unrelated topics.

I was one of those students who did well on tests. Apparently I had a good short-term memory, even for facts I didn't care about. And I did care about grades. That combination made me a strong student. But now, in my post-school life, it looks more like a weakness then a strength. It is a weakness, being afraid to admit to not knowing something. I hate it when I don't know an answer, or when people are talking about something I have never heard of. I expect myself to know everything. Because in the world of school, "I don't know" means you fail. And I almost never failed. The few times I did, it was not acceptable. Now I have to remind myself that it's OK not to know things. I have had to practice saying "I don't know."

But that shouldn't be such a big deal for anyone, because in most real-life situations, it is all right if you don't know all the answers, or even any of the answers. I would even say that you can hope for better results if you can quickly admit that you do not know the answer to a specific question, or the best solution to a problem. Because the best things to know are when you need help and where to go for help. And then you go there. And you ask for help. You are not alone and you don't have to figure things out on your own. Unless you are in school taking a test. Then you're on your own, sorry. You shouldn't even be reading this.

I can't remember the last time, outside of school, when I had to take a test, or even answer one question, where I didn't have time to or wasn't allowed to consult someone else or some technology to help me figure out the answers. So why do we force our children to perform this way on a weekly basis for over a decade of their lives?


  1. This is a really interesting post. I am a big proponent of student directed learning - of which learning to advocate and adapt is essential. I always come back to the question of what to do about the kid(s) who doesn't really need help with the material from a skill perspective rather he/she did not prepare or manage their time effectively so they are faced with a test or assessment that they are not prepared for b/b they did not invest the necessary effort in prepararation.

  2. @AHolliday, Thanks for your comment. The thing about student-directed learning is that it really eliminates the need for testing. Instead it requires trust in each child that he is learning what he has decided he needs to learn. There is no need to make them prove it.

  3. Taking a theory test for a driver's license! About 4 1/2 years ago. Testing is not only about how much you get right. Good teachers also use tests to inform future instruction. Yes, we get a feel for some of the students' knowledge levels without testing, but the tests often highlight areas we have missed that may well be vital for a student's future understanding of a concept. Yes, there are lots of other ways to assess student learning, and good teachers use them too! Don't write off the humble "test".

    Having said all that, I wish I could somehow have my students realise that if they don't tell me they don't understand something, I can't always tell, especially if they are copying work from others. All these things are cultural to some extent. It's losing face to say you don't know something, so it's better to copy what the next person is doing than risk losing face. Unfortunately the person next to you may well have it wrong, and then it doesn't help either of you. Oh, the joys of teaching.

    @ Vickie, I'm not familiar with student-directed learning, but am familiar with student-centred learning. All learning requires assessment in some form or another. It may just be observation, it may be an oral presentation, it might be a poster or model or other form of demonstration of knowedge, or even, dare I say it, a test. Would you like your life to be in the hands of a nurse or doctor who relies on someone else to calculate the dose of your medication for you because their math skills weren't "tested" in elementary school? I didn't think so. There is a place for testing!

  4. @KarenKTeachCamb, You got to *choose* to take the driver's test, right? There are many adults out there who choose not to drive. So that is completely different.

    Learning does not require assessment. My young children are learning everyday (without school). I can tell without testing them. I learn everyday (without school). I can tell without being tested.

    I can honestly say I have never thought about my doctor's elementary school experience as being important. I'm sure there are doctors out there who did very poorly in elementary school. I think that getting through medical school and showing competency at being a doctor are more important. That is why I ask for referrals when I want to choose a doctor, not to see their report cards from elementary school.

    And there may be "a place" for testing. But I don't believe tests should be central in a child's life for 13 years. Kids are way too stressed. And I blame our excessive "testing culture" for a lot of it.

  5. I agree with this so well....I'm in the computer world. I'm in tech support actually....if we don't know something we will pull up google faster than you can blink. But in order to get a good job....we have to take MASSIVE certification tests, and to me they are stupid, I learn better by DOING the work, so yea I can read a book, study answers and ace that stupid $175 test....but did I learn anything, maybe 1 or 2.

    Now get me out there in the technical world and through trial and error, asking questions, being shown how to do something....I will learn massive amount of information very quickly and retain it a lot longer.

    I hate tests.