Are Your Students’ Tests Making the Grade?

Engaged classrooms, productive after-school study, and good testing all advance learning. Did you ever stop to think that testing is a form of teaching? That good testing helps advance learning? Keep in mind: I’m talking about good testing. What’s that?

Think Outside the Box ImageFirst let’s explore what good testing is not. Testing can often be repetitious and predictable. Too often it’s the same-old, same-old fill in the blanks, parroting definitions, and matching exercises, etc . The worn-out testing methods not only hinder learning, they actually discourage learning. It squelches learning’s deeper meaning: creative and critical thinking.

The result? Short-term and superficial learning. And worse, when students are not challenged — tested to think “outside the box” of a particular subject — their learning becomes fragmented. They compartmentalize subjects. Whenever the bell rings, they enter another compartment, then another, etc. Students fail to see the big picture. They don’t stop to consider how subjects are related to one another.

An example. When students read a Dickens’ novel in English, they also learn about 19th Century England; how the Industrial Revolution affected and dramatically changed society; (history) the life of ordinary people in big cities; the vast gap between the rich and poor (social studies);  how dramatic change altered the face of “work”( economic change and the transition from traditional jobs). If students are aware, lots of things (subjects) come together for them in a single experience.

Real learning is not accumulating separate areas of knowledge. If students don’t know how to connect subjects by the time they get to college — to think and learn in broad ways — their college experience will miss the mark of an education.

Developing comprehensive, agile thinking must occur at the pre-college level. That sets a standard for what tests should really accomplish — things like creative reasoning, interdisciplinary (broad) thinking, and pragmatic problem solving, that is, being able to analyze parts and to discover causes and effects. In light of these goals, the traditional “stock” exams look frighteningly ineffective.

Some provocative research shows that testing in our schools — indeed, at all levels — is frequently trite and follows the “stock” formulas. So, we should ask: Are the learning skills — indeed, minds — of our students becoming as uncreative, monotonous and impractical as the tests they take?

Are students simply accumulating information
without developing the power to use it,
much less the language skills to express it?

Let’s make examining the test as part of education’s “annual physical.” You judge. Compare what you know about your student’s tests and test-taking skills in light of these truisms.

What tests should do: systematically judge and measure 1) acquired knowledge and 2) the development of intellectual skills in using that knowledge. Tests should measure learning by asking students to use what they know to analyze, to interpret, and to solve a variety of problems. Learning is not just about memorizing terms.

Do your student’s tests encourage intellectual challenges and mental participation?  Do they require real thinking and mental agility? Students who do well in such competencies can succeed. Those missing one or the other will consistently achieve less.

Parents can learn more about tests in my book, College Smart: Practical Tips for Parents; students can get test-taking techniques in my book, College Smart. Look for Strategy 9.

For a thought-provoking article on our education system and, in part, testing, I strongly encourage you to read Will Richardson’s article, “How We Can Connect School Life to Real Life.”