Tuesday, July 16, 2013
What's the point of tests?
School these days have lots of assessments. But what is the point of tests? I was thinking of this after reading Jay Mathews's Washington Post column on a parent's frustration that a teacher wouldn't send home his child's math tests. The child was struggling in math -- getting bad grades on those tests -- and so the parent wanted the child to work with him and a tutor on figuring out why he was getting those problems wrong. The teacher wouldn't send the test home because the tests get re-used year to year, and the presumption is that copies floating about could be used for cheating. There's a lot that's problematic about this scenario, but beyond the worry about cheating, it raises interesting questions about why kids are tested and missed opportunities. In the traditional educational mindset, a test shows what you know at some point in time. The information is presented, and then you are tested on it. You get a grade -- say, 14 out of 20 questions right, which is a 70% or "C" -- but regardless of the grade, the class is moving on. But there's another view of what tests should be -- one more represented by the parent in this column -- that tests are about diagnostic information. You see what a child knows at one point in time, and then you use that information to tailor instruction based on that information. The goal is mastery. A 70% isn't a sign that you're a mediocre student, per se. It's a sign that you don't know 30% of the material, and should learn that material before you move on. Personally, I think the latter view is more useful. A basketball player in practice might shoot 20 3-point shots, and he studies why he makes some and why he doesn't. He's not assigned a grade that follows him around for his 50% success rate. The goal is to improve. I'm sympathetic to the increased use of testing in schools over the past 10 years. In many cases this is the only real accountability put on schools -- the only way we have of knowing that a school that has great band uniforms and nice cheery classrooms has not, in fact, been producing graduates capable of succeeding in college. But end-of-year testing is a very rough way of doing this, and doesn't provide nearly the information we need to actually get better at things. Instead, constant assessment -- maybe of the sort computer programs could do -- could help parents and teachers figure out where students stand on their math skills, and how to shore up weak points. Parents like the father in Mathews' column could be getting information every week on their child's progress and not be in the dark -- except for a grade like "C" or "D" -- on what the child knows. Especially in a subject like math, it seems it would be possible to have enough problems generated through software that it wouldn't make sense for a teacher to use the same tests year after year anyway. What do you think is the point of tests?