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Testing Well and Poorly

NCLB legislation has imposed “high stakes” testing with draconian consequences on public school districts under a system of continuously escalating benchmarks that are, in theory, likely to cause 100 % of all schools and districts to be rated as failing by 2014. Award winning schools, troubled schools, city schools, suburban and rural schools, schools in large states and those in small ones, schools that send students to the Ivy League after graduation and those where graduation rates are terrible. All of them.

The absurdity, wasted time and expense of NCLB testing has caused a wide political consensus, including very conservative advocates of rigorous testing in education, such as Diane Ravitch, Chester Finn, E.D. Hirsch, Charles Murray and the American Enterprise Institute, to call on Congress to reform NCLB when it is due for reauthorization. Hopefully, this will be the case.

But not all testing is bad. Valid and reliable tests, used constructively and in the right proportion to other educational activities, can yield important data to improve student learning.

Tests are assessments of student the state of student knowledge and level of skills. They come basically in two forms, whether they are created by teachers, states or testing companies.

1. Summative:  Testing of student learning – i.e. final exam, SAT etc.

2. Formative: Testing for student learning – i.e. practice tests, AIMSweb.

Summative tests should be used very sparingly, as yardsticks or final measurements as they do not contribute to student learning. Formative testing, research shows us, should be a regular teaching-learning practice as they help reinforce learning, identify areas of student weakness and strength and give data for changing instructional practices.

From the Eide Neurolearning Blog, citing an educational study published in the prestigious journal Science:

Hot Seat Learning – Why Testing is Not All Bad


Testing at its best is:

Test and Re-Test – retesting improves retention, not one-time only testing. So if re-testing rarely occurs in the classroom (i.e. quiz then test on same material), students should practice quizzing themselves, do practice problems, and correct their work in order to learn from their mistakes.
Quiz Me: Retrieve, Don’t Just Elaborate Elaborative study may be necessary for students with memory difficulties (mnemonics, acronyms, etc.), but in a pinch – having to retrieve information will be a better strategy for committing information to long term memory
Effort + Retrieval are Good If students had to struggle a bit before comprehending a sentence, they were more likely to remember it later (even though they would not recognize the struggle being any benefit)
Repeated Re-testing and Avoiding the ‘Mastery Illusion’ When Karpicke studied effect studying, repeated re-testing was a effective strategy, but many students succumbed to the ‘mastery illusion’ putting away materials (i.e. they thought they ‘knew’) before they had really filed information into long-term memory

Tests should be our tools and not our masters.

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