Test Anxiety

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.


7 thoughts on “Test Anxiety

  1. What an interesting post! I am a fifth grade teacher in a middle class district in Massachusetts. We are a high performing district, in a very high performing state. Like you, I am politically lefty and consider myself to be quite progressive.
    When I started teaching at our elementary school 22 years ago, the curriculum was very open and flexible, and teachers were able to follow their own passions and those of the kids. That was good; it was incredibly creative and the kids were very motivated to ask questions and to find out the answers. But it was bad, too, because there was no order or progression or assessment. Kids who did not do well were not always noticed.
    Fast forward to today, where our entire focus is on following the very narrow and proscribed curriculum (aka: the “Common Core”). We have boxed kits for teaching everything, and we all follow the same scripts. We focus on data and testing and measurement so much that it makes an old teacher like me literally sick.
    Kids can be guided and supported; they don’t have to be shoved into a box, as the current American curriculum movement is doing. As for 21st Century learning? It sounds great on paper, but there is literally no innovation, risk taking, inquiry or creativity going on in public school anymore. Even in a top district like the one where I work.


    1. Thanks for your comment, momshieb. At the primary levels, there definitely has to be a balance between setting and measuring standards and encouraging students to take risks, as well as to try again when they “fail.” I suspect that much of what’s going on in your neck of the woods is tied to political views on the teaching profession. If my job was tied to student test scores, I might not have the same perspective. As it is, I feel that achievement tests here exist in a teaching and learning symbiosis.


      1. It sounds like your use of testing is what testing is SUPPOSED to be; to guide our teaching, to give feedback to students, to let us know how the pace is working out. I wish it were so everywhere!


  2. Hi there,

    I saw your tweet and wanted to respond as I understand how we can be on different ends of the spectrum. I agree with certain areas and while I appreciate your perspective on these issues, I respectfully disagree on many of the points you’ve outlined. I would like to speak to the following as an Alberta Educator myself:

    “Allowing students the “freedom” to choose what they want to study and how they want to demonstrate their learning seems intuitively nonsensical.”

    There is a misconception as to how learning occurs in a classroom where ‘testing’ isn’t the main form of assessment. Students do not have the freedom to choose what they want to study, our curriculum dictates this and all of us are mandated as educators to follow the guidelines set forth. What the curriculum doesn’t include is how we teach and assess the outcomes. Co-creating assessment criteria with students ensures that the curricular outcomes have been met and that students have a range of ways to demonstrate their understandings of the concepts mandated, whether that is through testing or through application.

    “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?”

    What they were supposed to learn? This criteria comes directly from our curriculum and is communicated to the students and parents prior to learning activities. Classroom communication of the learning outcomes is top priority before beginning any learning assignment. What are you learning and why are you learning it is something that can be answered immediately by students if communicated and concepts taught properly within the classroom.

    How we will know and how they will know? Educators must ensure that there are proper assessment tools and criteria in place. This doesn’t always mean a test. Their work and application of their understandings and learning is evident when it matches the criteria outlined before the learning occurs.

    “Clearly articulated facts, theories, and procedures that they can LEARN. And for them to learn, they must be tested.”

    I struggle with the use of the word ‘tested’. I don’t agree that in order for students to learn, they must be tested. In order for them to demonstrate their learning and apply the metacognition of what and how they learned, they must be assessed absolutely, but not necessarily ‘tested’. Assessment of and for learning doesn’t always mean testing. A test can be just a measure of information that can be found within quick access of a search engine. The real measure of knowledge is not only that a student knows the information, but if they also can make connections, apply that knowledge and extend it which cannot be done solely through testing.

    “Which brings us to another grand debate – what should be taught? My answer: knowledge.”

    I highly disagree that the only thing we need to be taught is knowledge. We are far beyond that scale of understanding. While knowledge is a part of the process, we also require connection, application and extension of that knowledge. These are skills that cannot be required or measured by a test.

    “However, at some point, the test should test what the student has or has not learned – end of story.”

    Is a test the only way to measure a student’s learning? Not by a long shot.


    1. Dana,
      Our entire school system is created on the STANDARDS of reading, writing and arithmetic. Along with prescribed STANDARDS, such as learning outcomes, are levels of measurement to ensure students know what they are learning. These are called tests. It’s how the outside world operates as well. It’s what allows parents and other educators to know how the student is performing. Is learning all about tests? Absolutely not…it never has been, and it shan’t be today. However the pendulum has swung way too far the other way, allowing for this gobbledygook hogwash for “student centred learning” and constantly seeking new and improved ways in assessing kids which have absolutely zero accountability attached to the outcomes.

      Your response here contains so many myths and rhetoric, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where to start. You have zero evidence to support your claims. None. Nada. Zip. Second, in light of zero evidence, you state your opinion, which is fine, as this is a blog. However nonsense and drivel deserves a firm scolding. It’s called accountability. Your statement about “teaching knowledge” is ridiculous. Knowledge cannot be taught, it can only be gathered over a very long period of time whereby information is gathered, assessed, TESTED, tried out, and then concluded upon. This comes through memorization of facts, automaticity, understanding of facts, and then processing this information into knowledgeable content and critical thinking. For most, it takes YEARS to achieve. What the gurus behind 21st century/inquiry based learning is trying to do, is place a shortcut on this mastery and proven way of learning and shortcut it right to googling the topic and then spitting it out on a group project. BIG difference.

      If you really are interested in what makes for effective teaching methods in the classroom, I would suggest to follow the evidence based research. You know, like all the other professions do. Quantitative evidence and peer review guide other professions such as law, medicine and engineering. Why is education any different? Would you cross that bridge if engineers came up with a new way of building it without first testing it several hundred times? Or be interested in taking that unproven medicine if the doctors told you to GO AHEAD IT’S FINE without many years of quantitative research or empirical evidence? Education is no different. This type of education system you adore, has already been proven to be an abysmal failure by other nations, which is why it’s been ABANDONED and these countries are now returning to a knowledge based curriculum…because they WORK. Don’t get sucked into the edubabble our policy makers are dishing out. Call this latest trend what it is…just THAT, a trend. Nothing more. Nothing less.

      Frankly, I’m tired of teaching my kids their foundational skills at home. Isn’t that the purpose of school? If not, what are my tax dollars paying for? Kids haven’t changed, and neither has the way they think. Stop believing the fairytale world of gobbledygook hogwash and get our kids learning again. When over 40% of our kids are attending learning centres to learn their reading and arithmetic fundamentals, there must be an acknowledgement that this 21st century system of learning is an unmitigated disaster.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Tara, I can sense that as a parent, you’re frustrated. As a teacher, I share your frustration with these new initiatives that I characterize as robbing students of their right to a good education. You’ve given me an idea for my next blog post!


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