Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Testing -- Help or Hindrance to Learning?

“I had scarcely passed my twelfth birthday when I entered the inhospitable regions of examinations, through which for the next seven years I was destined to journey. These examinations were a great trial to me. The subjects which were dearest to the examiners were almost invariably those I fancied least. I would have liked to have been examined in history, poetry and writing essays.

The examiners, on the other hand, were partial to Latin and mathematics. And their will prevailed. Moreover, the questions which they asked on both these subjects were almost invariably those to which I was unable to suggest a satisfactory answer. I should have liked to be asked to say what I knew. They always tried to ask what I did not know. When I would have willingly displayed my knowledge, they sought to expose my ignorance. This sort of treatment had only one result: I did not do well in examinations.“
Another bit from Winston Churchill's My Early Life -- a very good book, by the way, humorous and elegantly written.

Laura, in her comment to my last post, brought up the emphasis on testing in the "traditional" education circles. This article about ED Hirsch's "Core Knowledge" education notes:

The "Massachusetts miracle," in which Bay State students' soaring test scores broke records, was the direct consequence of the state legislature's passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, which established knowledge-based standards for all grades and a rigorous testing system linked to the new standards. And those standards, Massachusetts reformers have acknowledged, are Hirsch's legacy.
Certainly there are many, many tests in the charter program we are using. Most lessons have an "assessment" at the end to check for mastery, and there are also more comprehensive assessments after each unit in each subject. In addition to this, there are state standardized tests at the beginning and end of each school year. And if that's not enough, the children are supposed to spend time regularly at Study Island, where they work on state standards through quizzes -- which can be in game format as well as in interactive worksheet or standard test form.

Is it too much? Or not enough, in the sense that it is not about real learning? I certainly think that in the wider public sense, an over-emphasis on testing and assessment can be detrimental to education. It can be stressful, it can distort real education, it can be used to put kids in tracks and thus have a corrupting effect on our democratic tradition. As Diane Ravitch notes, Tests Can Be Misused.

On the other hand, historically it has been somewhat difficult to think of a workable and honest alternative to testing. De-emphasizing testing, on a public level, can be dishonest to the children. Where a virtual monopoly is concerned, a lack of testing can be intertwined with a lack of accountability. (as an outsider, it's easy for me to conclude then that the system is broken; and as a former student, I'd prefer that the schools test academics, given that teaching academics is actually what they are in existence for, rather than engage in creepy subjective personal assessments or just give up any kind of real goal at all).

As a parent who homeschools and has kids in college and high school, I can accept that testing exists and is of real importance in life. College-prep testing is not going to go away. Nor is job-testing. And I don't see anything wrong with that so long as there are alternatives for people that don't test well in narrow academic subjects.

Now, as a homeschooler practicing education in my own home? Personally, I haven't found the heavy emphasis on testing in the K12 charter school to be a problem. In fact, being very honest, the emphasis on tests is one of the advantages of the program for me. I might feel differently if my kids were being brought down by the tests or were the type of kids that don't test well, but as it stands:

1. Both the kids rather like the tests than otherwise.... it gives them a marker of progress, even if slightly artificial.
2. The tests allow me to see where the kids are and where they still need work.

My kids like the tests, I think, because it's a pleasure to go over material that one knows well. And it's a pleasure to do well; and it's not catastrophic, in our environment, to do poorly. The way the system works, if a child falls short on an assessment, he reviews and does it again until he passes. At the same time, falling short is a useful yellow alert for me, as the teacher, that there is a problem with how the material was taught or learned. It has no "real world" effect -- unlike in public schools, where the child who has fallen short on an assessment has to drag a cumulative burden of poor grades and thus adds discouragement or fear to whatever learning difficulty he already had. In our homeschool, it merely means tweaking -- me working with the kid, or the kid working more carefully -- until the material is known.

I think children can feel a bit disoriented when they don't quite know what the expectations are in a subject. So having the expectations clearcut and eminently reachable is a bonus for their confidence level. In some ways, it can be existentially troubling to know you are being assessed but not know exactly in what way or using what standards. Having things clearcut has minimized some of the stress for both me and the kids.

I think it parallels the Montessori system in some ways. In the Montessori system, the children work with the materials many, many times if they need to. They set their own pace and mastery is the goal. I think that for kids, this is very satisfying -- to know the task and know it can be mastered and that they are not "failures" if they don't.

The Jesuits were very firm advocates of testing. They pinned their education on daily, weekly, monthly, and term quizzes, tests and exams. And their students enjoyed notable success in all walks of life. There were other aspects to the Ignatian educational success besides testing. For example, a solid sacramental life, a great intellectual and moral example of well-educated teachers who were also good men.

Something called the Testing Effect has been measured. From this post on The Value of Testing:

The journal Psychological Science noted this outcome in a 2006 report. According to the researchers, “Taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention, a phenomenon known as the testing effect.” They added, “Testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing.”
For my first grader, the tests aren't really tests for him. They are oriented towards review and overlearning. For my 8th grader, for whom "real world measurements" have become more important, the tests provide incentive and also more reliable remembering of key points that are important for later study.

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