Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Tests Shouldn’t Be Given Unless They Serve Learning

I do not believe in using tools and formalisms in teaching that are inadequate for any practical task.
Niklas Wirth inventor of Pascal, and Modula 2.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how many tests you took when you were in school? Fifty a year? A hundred? You’ve taken so many tests that you should have some ideas about them. You’ve certainly got enough of a basis for comparison and to draw some conclusions.

What use were these tests you took? What did they teach you? Were they a waste of time or a roadblock that stopped you short?

The only educational purpose that a test can have is to help students learn. A test should be a motivation to learn but it should also be an indication to a student and the teacher of what the student hasn’t learned yet and needs to. But most tests don’t show the student just what it is that needs work. Unless they have pointed out to them what they need to work on and what parts of the text to review, they simply won’t be able to figure this out by themselves. And a lot of schooling just doesn’t follow up. Most usually a test is an end of a section or chapter and immediately after it’s taken the entire class will move on, any needed review undone. The great mid-terms and finals are too remote for your typical adolescent to think about. Those give little incentive for review during the term. And unless we instruct young students in the elusive skills of self-teaching why should we expect them to know how to do the review on their own?

There is a legitimate administrative use of tests. If a student without a record asks to be allowed into a course or program of study it is only kind to see if they can hope to do so successfully. But unless there is a way for a student to learn what they need to know if they fail the test, an administrative test cannot have an educational purpose. It turns into a method of social engineering, by intention or accident. This is also one of the worst aspects of high-stakes testing and unless the remedial side of the question is fulfilled, social class assignment is the only real effect of it.

Maybe it’s enlightening to look at another kind of test to see what this means. The infamous IQ testing* was begun in France as a method of evaluation of ability with the intention of making improvements in the individual’s performance. One can’t help wondering if this wasn’t in keeping with liberty, equality and fraternity. When the idea caught on in the anglosphere it was transformed into a fixed score which was immutable and a legitimate means of educational and social classification. The poor were, perhaps unfortunately, stupid. The rich had been endowed by providence with more smarts. There were mysterious exceptions but they were mysteries. What this says about very class conscious England of that time seems simple enough. What it seems to say about the United States should make us all take a closer look at the pretensions of being any less class ridden than the Brits of the 1920s. I’ve got a hunch that England might be considerably less so than we are today.

The Bush regime has made high-stakes testing part of the religion of education in the United States. I suspect this has a lot more to do with enriching testing companies and undermining the public schools for the benefit of education pirates than anything else. In doing this they were very shrewd. Americans love to take account and point fingers. It makes them feel like serious adults. They also love to blame individuals for failings. Blaming fourth graders for not being accomplished autodidacts however, is zany, irrational and viciously callous. Blaming eighth graders is probably worse considering what puberty does to children’s sanity to begin with.

High stakes testing as done in the United States combines all the least attractive features of prissy goody-two-shoes, school yard bully, cruel and incompetent teacher and indifferent principal into one monster. Now, why would anyone think that children would have problems learning with that hanging over their heads?

Note: I should say that teachers seem to hate high-stakes testing with a passion seldom seen in that profession.

* For now I will not be dealing directly with IQ but am preparing a post on related topics. Let’s just say that the scientific basis of so called IQ is, at worst entirely bogus and malevolent, at best hardly a matter of universal consensus, not even among people who believe that such a thing exists. Since there is anything but a consensus on "IQ" it shouldn't be used for the basis of social or enducational policy. Oddly, conservatives don't chant "it's only a theory" and IQ doesn't even have a fossil record.

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