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?


nicoleandmaggie said...

For my college students, I give them tests so they're forced to study and synthesize the material.

Raising a Happy Child said...

I agree with diagnostics nature of tests, but I would think that parents should be able to track students' progress based on the homework and other intermediate tests that are normally sent home. In our public school we are getting a bunch of paper every week with classwork, marked homework, intermediate and prep tests, etc., so engaged parents like ourselves can review everything and assess where their child is way before that final test. Frankly, I think the parent in question didn't do his or her homework during the year and has little reason to complain.

Anonymous said...

After a lifetime of testing and now watching our child being tested, I, at this moment in time, see it as a time period to work quietly and independently during schooltime at problem solving. Also, the timeframe helps humans to work within the confines of our concept of time; time management is so important in the workplace and, maybe even more so because of the cool technology that hopefully makes us more efficient.

Tara said...

In my education classes, we were encouraged to call them "assessment tools" rather than tests. You know the educational community loves buzzwords & jargon but in this case, I agree. A "test" is a tool used by the teacher to assess the student's progress.

In my professional opinion, I think the teacher you're dealing with could have sent the tests home to be signed & sent back (possibly for the bonus of extra points) if he/she REALLY wanted them back. What I think the crux of the deal was, in schools with educated & involved parents, teachers DON'T want parents "undermining" them by teaching a different method. That begs the question, what's more important the method or the answer.

Or, you have a FLAT OUT lazy teacher who is so uninspired, they can't write a new test from year to year. And if that is the case, as a parent, I'd ask for my child to be reassigned & that teacher needs to do some serious introspection in regards to his or her career 'cause there's some serious laziness & burn out going on.

Toni said...

In my college experience, I encounter even worse. Not only are the tests reused year to year and therefore the students can't get a copy. They often don't even get to see their graded test, nor is there any kind of feedback. In my view, that is outright abusive. Students should get reliable feedback on their work and get the chance to learn from their mistakes. When the only purpose of tests is to rank individuals, we are perverting the idea of education.


TeriLyn said...

Students can only experience and internalize their learning when properly assessed, not just graded. Tomlinson (2005) contends the “continual grading of everything impairs students’ willingness to learn from mistakes, makes them teacher dependent, and teaches them to learn for grades, not for its own value” (p. 104). Assessing promotes active engagement of the teacher, parent, and gifted learner. Educators will promote success in the classroom by communicating student’s growth over time and mastery of content. Communicating with the student and parent “is a significant component in the process of insuring that every student experiences continuous learning” (Kingore, 2007, p. 205). “Metacognition is the gear that keeps the assessment process moving meaningfully. It requires students to consciously analyze their thinking processes” (Kingore, 2007, p. 69). The differentiated classroom allows the educator to utilize assessments to determine appropriate instruction for their students. The educator should ensure that every child comes to “believe that learning involves effort, risk, and personal triumph” (Tomlinson, 2005, p. 2). Students that experience learning tasks too easy or too difficult may react in off task behavior, frustration and underachievement.

Kingore, B. (2007). Assessment: Timesaving procedures for busy teachers. 4th Ed. Austin, TX: Professional Associates Publishing.
Tomlinson, C.A. (2005). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.