Standardized tests are the enemy of learning.

March 19, 2013

Over my teaching career I drafted and marked writing tests at the Ministry level and administered a stream of reading and writing tests in schools. Large-scale standardized tests are a useful tool for realtors and the tests sort the cohort somewhat for universities and colleges, but they are the enemy of learning for students.

As a lark I used to train my senior English students to deal with badly-written multiple-choice tests. Instead of a lecture on a play or novel I would assign them a multiple-choice test I had prepared, mark it on the spot, and then over the course of a class or two invite the students to try to persuade me that individual questions on this grossly imperfect test should be thrown out on some grounds, thereby reducing the bottom number while allowing their gross marks to stand. Thus an 18/30 might become an 18/24, or even 20, if the class had clever and alert members. This technique worked on a couple of levels: kids learned to work as a team to a common purpose, they had a license to challenge the teacher’s authority in this area, they could pave over a weak mark with effort, and they quickly learned how to trace the thought processes behind individual questions on a multiple-choice test. I believed then and now that multiple-choice tests are a great teaching tool. They’re just a lousy way to assign marks. I refused to count an individual multiple-choice test for more than 1% of a course.

My students treasured these testing sessions. They frequently reported back from university that those “arguments in your class” had given them a leg up on those who had not had the practice. Turns out my test questions were no worse than many they encountered in their programs next year. When it came down to it the lessons about multiple-choice were pretty simple: treat the test as a game and listen for the marker’s voice.

But in the English department the real value we were able to add was in the writing skills our students developed while at our school. As a department we read and re-read every word the kids wrote. They wrote multiple drafts, outlines, and polished essays. We stayed with the students at all stages of the writing process because that was what worked. We could watch their growth. We assumed as early as 1984 that any meaningful writing in these kids’ lives would be on keyboards, so I converted a series of classrooms to computer labs and as a department we embraced the computer as the central writing tool, even for examinations.

We still look back to assignments such as Define truth. as the ones which taught them how to think, and thus how to adapt. The open-ended task was the valuable one.

In your turn in a one minute seminar to the class tomorrow, account for Hamlet’s reaction to Ophelia in Act III, scene i. Take care to ensure that your explanation is unlike that of any classmate who has spoken before you in the circle, but please do not resort to a tale of alien abduction.

Understandably no one came late, and for the record, thirty plausible interpretations for Get thee to a nunnery, Go! are quite possible from a bright class. Kids love the challenge of coming up with magnificent wrong answers.

Large-scale standardized tests measure only convergent thinking performance. With nothing but standardized tests we’d still be in grass huts. Convergent thinkers don’t invent.


Afterword: At dinner recently our companion told me of the problem her elderly father faced in preparing for his first written driver’s test at the age of 80. Coming to Canada with a grade 2 education as a young man, he had never learned to read in English. She struggled in attempts to prepare him for the questions, then despaired. He stubbornly went ahead and wrote the thing, and to her enormous surprise, passed.

She asked him how he did it.

“I picked the longest answer to each question.”

Again, standardized tests are great for realtors. Suburban house prices rise and fall on the strength of provincial school ratings based upon math and reading tests, but any learning students actually do is generally in spite of the test, not because of it.


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