As I’ve mentioned, I’m no fan of Michelle Rhee and the GERM movement, which hinges on testing as an accountability measure for both teaching and learning. However, there is substantial evidence to support the value of testing as a learning tool, and as a measure of achievement.
The move toward a “21st Century” model of education seems to include a move away from the traditional testing of knowledge of content in favour of things like performance assessments, projects, or other collaborative endeavors. Obviously, this highlights the value of applying a discovery or inquiry methodology to learning. This irks me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that up to the end of secondary school, we’re still dealing with adolescent brains that haven’t fully developed with respect to the application of executive functions like impulse control and judgment. Allowing students the “freedom” to choose what they want to study and how they want to demonstrate their learning seems intuitively nonsensical when you consider that their brains aren’t even really capable yet of employing the necessary functions required for such a vast endeavor; I see it as rather setting them up for failure. Oh yes, they may present a lovely drawing of the Battle of 1812 or a spectacular video, complete with visual effects and a soundtrack, explaining the application of quadratic functions in the real world. But what were they supposed to learn? How will we know? How will they know? Most students, even up to the end of secondary school, are only developing a foundational schema for what will later give them the ability to build cognitive networks in their brains, allowing them to make sense of the world. This process will continue, as it does for all of us, in a lifelong journey of learning. But for this foundation to be laid, younger brains need knowledge. Clearly articulated facts, theories, and procedures that they can LEARN. And for them to learn, they must be tested.
Further, young brains are far more capable of learning new things, exactly because this long-term wiring has not been completed. The paradox here is that while young brains tend to lack impulse control as well as the ability to predict the consequences of their actions, it is these same young brains that exhibit the most plasticity, that is, the ability to connect potential pathways in the brain, which translates into learning. This is when they are best able to learn new things, but are at a stage in life that learning may be the last thing they want to do.
One of the most difficult things about writing on a particular topic in education is the near-impossibility of focusing only on that one topic, since everything is so inextricably linked. Is testing good or bad? It depends – what is being tested? What was taught is being tested. Okay – what was taught? Which brings us to another grand debate – what should be taught? My answer: knowledge – in core subject areas as well as in areas like music and art and the study of foreign languages. Some erudite and rather compelling discussions of this idea can be found here, here, here, and here.
So, if we can agree that there’s a core foundation of knowledge that should be taught (which we obviously cannot, but let’s pretend), we must accept that tests and exams are part of learning. In “The Testing Effect for Learning Principles and Procedures from Texts,” Dirkx, Kester, and Kirschner demonstrate that “testing seems not only to benefit fact retention but also positively affects deeper learning,” albeit in studies that are somewhat limited in scope (full text on http://www.tandfonline.com with registration). The reason for this is completely in line with research in the field of neuroscience; reading leads to the encoding of the studied information, some of which will pass into long-term memory. However, additionally engaging in the retrieval of the studied information results in increased retention and deeper learning, particularly if this process is engaged in multiple intervals – allowing for forgetting – over a period of time.
Alfie Kohn and his disciples argue for an end to grading completely, suggesting that high-stakes tests erode student confidence and in fact discourage students from committing to lifelong learning. They submit that standardized tests (and tests, in general, I suppose) cannot truly measure learning because they’re too limited and too limiting.
I resent the argument that anything that we’ve done up to now just doesn’t measure up to “21st century learning.” Why? Because the human brain has somehow completely transformed? While early studies suggest that our brains have been influenced by technology, actual changes in the way humans learn haven’t been proven. Further, if some kind of evolutionary change has begun, perhaps we should question THAT before mindlessly moving on with redesigning education simply because “hey, it’s how the kids wanna learn in the 21st century, what with all the brain rewiring from being digital natives.”
Another argument against standardized testing is that it encourages cheating, both on the parts of students and teachers – a straw man fallacy if there ever was one. For a great commentary on “tak[ing] the effect and mak[ing] it the cause,” see here.
*Side note: I’ve always taken great issue with the “progressive” designation when it comes to education, and how it’s conflated with a comparable socioeconomic and political spectrum. When it comes to economics and politics, I’m unabashedly left of center. When it comes to my philosophical bent, I tend to move around in the world quite trustingly, believing that people are, for the most part, good, or at least they want to be. Yet my views on education seem to lump me into a category that places me on the sociopolitical right, and – as a teacher – into a group defined as dictatorial, insensitive, and antediluvian. If the “progressives” believe that children are so pure and want so much to discover the world, and that if only teachers would step aside to guide their naturally inquisitive natures all would be well, why the aforementioned argument against testing? The progressives seem to see the world through rose-coloured glasses when it comes to implementing education policies and paradigms, yet much of their philosophy is centered on a worldview that seems rather to accept a world that is, in essence, corrupt and deceptive. Odd, that.
So . . . the value of testing. We’re at the end of the semester here in Alberta, and my students have completed Part A of their English diploma exam, and they’re in the throes of writing the rest of their diploma exams. I’m rather protective of these exams because they’re comprehensive, reflective of what should have been learned in the classroom, and they provide a level of expectation and accountability for both students and, to some extent, for teachers. But lately, these exams seem to be rather unpopular in Alberta Education’s “Transform” circles.
Alberta administers Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) in all core subject areas in grades 3 (this has changed), 6, and 9, which are not considered high-stakes tests, as well as a Diploma Exam in grade 12, which is pretty high stakes, at a value of 50% of the student’s final grade. The PAT in grade 3 has been converted to a supposedly more diagnostic exam administered at the beginning, rather than at the end, of the school year. The plan is to make the same change for grades 6 and 9, despite an arguable failure of the implementation of the first grade 3 SLA (Student Learning Assessment, rather than PAT). As well, there is much debate over whether the Diploma Exam should be worth only 20% or 30%, rather than 50% of a student’s final grade.
While Alberta Education seems to have backed off slightly in its push to completely transform our system, probably due, at least in part, to the appointment of a new Minister of Education, the possibility of dismantling the PAT and Diploma Exam process still seems to be an option. Many initiatives seem to be continuing to move us in a direction wherein these exams will be, if not completely abolished, significantly redesigned to a point where their integrity and validity will be notably compromised.
The diploma exams for Social Studies (30-1/30-2) and English Language Arts (30-1/30-2) are still comprised of a Part A and a Part B. ALL the diploma exams – including Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and General Science – used to include two parts, but in 2008, Alberta Education decided to eliminate the Part A for the latter subject areas, which was written. This was done for several reasons, not the least of which was the cost associated with grading the written work. So actually, each exam was administered in two parts, on two different days, usually separated by a week or more. However, in English and Social Studies, we, thankfully, still have the Part A portion of the exam, which consists largely of essay writing, as well as functional writing and creative writing, depending on the exam and on choices the student makes. It provides students with a wonderful opportunity to apply a wide range of curricular outcomes in a single cohesive and comprehensive writing experience and makes the 50% weighting more reasonable.
The requirements for teachers who apply to mark diploma exams are stringent – not just anyone can do it. Teachers are required to have taught the course they mark for at least two years. Once they’ve participated in a marking session, they must be invited back, based on a number of factors, including understanding the standards and marking discrepancy rates. The marking process itself is approached in an almost sacrosanct manner.
There’s great concern regarding what many view as high-stakes testing, particularly in the U.S., where over-testing has become a serious issue. Even in Canada, there’s been opposition to the process and cost of achievement testing. However, I would argue that we don’t have that problem in Alberta. These achievement tests have been designed as a measure of the most important aspects of the core curricula and are administered only every three years. Four general achievement exam sessions in twelve years hardly seems superfluous. This is not like what we so often hear about in the U.S. where instructional time is taken for tests, pre-tests, pre-pre-tests, practice tests, and so on. Further, I’d encourage anyone who challenges the validity of Alberta’s diploma exams to compare them to similar exit-level exams in the U.S. Alberta’s exams are comprehensive, rigorous, and relevant. If I could change one thing, I’d reinstate the Part A (written) for the Maths and Sciences.
The PATs and Diploma Exams are an effective standard for education in our province. In Alberta, we have a great system that doesn’t need to be “redesigned.” Diploma exams have always been modified and updated; when I started marking ten years ago, the vast majority of exams were done with pen on paper and now, most are word-processed. These kinds of innovations and changes have always been part of our system, one that does NOT require an overhaul or redesign. My fear is that this is exactly what will happen.
Alberta Education seems to be staying on course in its move to SLAs (Student Learning Assessment) rather than PATs (Provincial Achievement Test) up to the high-school level. Absolutely, in grade 3, testing should be about identifying areas for improvement in order to boost student learning. However, at some point, the test should test what the student has or has not learned – end of story.
The absence of rigorous, standardized tests opens the door for “fuzzy” pedagogies, where outcomes are vaguely stated, results are highly interpretive, and standards don’t exist.