Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tests get high marks for preparing kids to... take more tests.

I was reading an article from the Globe and Mail titled Tests get high marks as a learning tool, and I found myself thinking that the article should have been titled Tests get high marks for preparing kids to... take more tests.

Look at the first sentence of the entire article:
At the start of term, Karl Szpunar’s students sigh or groan when he tells them there will be a quiz at the end of every class. Two or three usually drop his course.
Are you as disturbed as I am?

If the premise behind tests getting high marks as a learning tool wears drop-out rates as a badge of honor, I'm getting off this cheap carnival ride. 

I won't have any part of it.

If we define learning simply as higher test scores then one of the best ways to achieve such a goal is to ensure an inflated attrition rate. 

Drop the duds and watch the scores rise. Want proof? Ask KIPP.

I also have a problem with the sighs and groaning that are predictably elicited from the students when the teacher dictates the inevitability of the quiz. Why is it that so many parents and educators subscribe to the Listerine Theory of education? You know - if it's distasteful, or even painful, it must be good for you. If we really want to make school a better place for kids, we have to stop asking them to show what they know by doing things they hate.

But hang on, the article gets better: 
What is it about retrieving information, whether in a pop quiz, flashcards or even a classroom game of Jeopardy, that is so effective at creating long-term memories? Why is it better than rereading a chapter or reviewing notes?
Yeah, that's right, our two choices are flash cards and Jeopardy or rereading chapters and reviewing notes...


Is there nothing more authentic the kids could be doing to construct their understanding? 

If you want to make science or social studies a glorified vocabulary lesson where kids simply respond "what is a manipulating variable" or "what is the municipal government", then by all means Jeopardy is the way to go. But if Jeopardy is our flagship for good teaching and real learning then we need to pull the plug on Alex Trebek or me right now because the classroom isn't big enough for the two of us. 

If you want to make math an exercise in mindless mimicry, then by all means flashcards are the way to go. I've seen too many kids come to define themselves mathematical failures only because they couldn't think fast enough. I have a student in my class this year who sees himself as a failure in math only because he can't do flashcards fast enough - and yet, if you stop to actually talk with him, rather than bark questions at him, you will find that his logico-mathematical knowledge is growing nicely.

As I continued to read this article, I was left wondering how these researchers were defining a quiz. What does it actually look like? Are we talking about more kids filling in more bubbles? Early on they made it clear that these quizzes were not simply more standardized tests- so what do these quizzes actually look like? Then I read this:

What matters is that children are asked to retrieve the information they have been taught.
Believe it or not, I actually object to this seemingly benign statement. What is wrong with retrieving information students have been taught? 

I'm glad you asked!

First of all, the emphasis here is on what they are taught when it should be on what they have learned. Good enough teachers focus on teaching, but excellent educators know that good teaching cannot be differentiated from learning. Alfie Kohn puts it this way:

What we do doesn't matter nearly as much as how kids experience what we do.
If quizzes are just another way to perpetuate the banking model of education then we ought to not waste our time.

As if this article couldn't get sketchy enough, it has to go and say this:

Many elementary teachers already do these sorts of activities, he says, including practice tests before the real spelling test, or “mad minutes," where students have 60 seconds to answer as many multiplication questions as they can.

The real reason to get kids to do tests and quizzes is so that they can get good at doing more tests and quizzes. Education's obsessive focus on testing is a very slippery slope. If we are not careful, we run the risk of bastardizing the power of formative assessment in the name of improving summative test scores. 

Education Week ran a very good article that warned how formative assessment has the potential for being perverted into nothing more than a set of tools or "mini-summative" tests:

Referring to a body of work that sought to define formative assessment during the past two decades, including the influential 1998 article, “Inside the Black Box,” by Paul Black and Dylan William, she said formative assessment is not a series of quizzes or a “more frequent, finer-grained” interim assessment, but a continuous process embedded in adults’ teaching and students’ learning.
Teachers use formative assessment to guide instruction when they clearly define what students should know, periodically gauge their understanding, and give them descriptive feedback—not simply a test score or a grade—to help them reach those goals, Ms. Heritage said. Students engage in the process by understanding how their work must evolve and developing self-assessment and peer-assessment strategies to help them get there, she said.
There's a reason why Albert Einstein once said:

It's a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.
If you, like Albert, can see that formal education is in need of a reformation, then I hope you can also see that  by simply adding more quizzes is a great way of trying to improve school by changing nothing.


  1. I have been teaching 8 years and have struggled under the weight of grades and what they don't mean for true learning. The truth of their effects didn't become crystal clear to me until a recent discussion with my 6th grade daughter's math teacher. After doing very well on homework and in class work, my daughter has "struggled" (i.e., gotten poorer grades) on the unit tests. After each test, I emailed the teacher asking for explanations of what my child was not learning/understanding or what else the issue could be.
    After the first test, I was told "it was the first test, it was hard, and the students weren't used to this type of RIGOROUS testing."
    After the second--"well they are allowed to redo for make up points."
    After the third test--"she earned the make up points and I already handed back the tests, so I can't tell you what she's not understanding. We have another test in a day or two, let's see how she does on that one."
    NOTE-not once was I given the requested information--what was she struggling with. All of the above tests--about a 70%.
    Test 4-59%--this is after my daughter came home and said--"I think I did really well on the test today--it was percents and decimals and I KNOW how to do it." So, one more time I start the email process. This time I also Cc:d the principal. Longest email I ever got. Starts with a line about how she is sorry she "didn't understand what I had been requesting in previous emails, but the issue seems to be Isabel simply missing a step in the problems." I still don't know WHAT the step was, so I email back asking what exactly my daughter missed--I was told she understands and can apply the objective concepts (adding/subtracting and converting fractions), but she sometimes forgets to simplify the final fraction. she forgot a step. And that cost her almost 50% of the test. Hmmmm...

    The final email from the teacher said it all and she should get a raise for selling the company line so well! "Well as a teacher yourself you should know how tricky those state assessments can be, I am trying to get them to pass those assessments."

    End of story. My daughter is not there to learn and understand how to apply the concepts. She's there to spend 2 days reviewing the test by taking a "practice test" together. Spending 2 days taking the actual test. And then getting no help from home, because she is not allowed to bring home her work (it's ALL kept to go through at the end of the quarter for a "portfolio") so mom has no idea what is being taught.

    As a teacher myself, I work in an unconventional school that doesn't necessarily follow the same grading constraints as traditional schools. And I struggle with the thought of ever going back into a traditional school and having to deal with these ideas again. My daughter is now at a point where she wants out of school b/c she sees how my school works and why she can't be doing the same kind of learning.

  2. Angela, that is a very telling story. Thank you for sharing it.

    I am going to post your comment as a blog post all on its own.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.



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