Tuesday, December 30, 2014

For Teachers Only: What Is Wrong With Testing?

For Teachers only: What is wrong with giving tests?

By Mary Ann De Neve Slavcheff, M.A.

Let’s take a test.


I could give you one of those standardized tests that students are often expected to take. Doesn’t everyone hate those? Why should anyone have to know what a harangue or a tangent is? Does X plus Y ever equal anything other than two letters of the alphabet?

And then there was this week’s reading assignment which you were supposed to… Wait a minute. I didn’t assign a reading. I didn’t teach you anything, so how can I test you?

There is something about tests and quizzes that scares people. Even those of us who are not students anymore, even teachers, have a negative reaction.


I assigned a reading or a set of problems. The student claims that he read the assignments or did all the problems. He didn’t get help from his friends who always ace the tests. I, the teacher, don’t believe the student really did his homework. I think he is lying about the time he said he spent studying.

I will test him and let’s see if he is telling the truth.

Tests thus crate an atmosphere of distrust between students and teachers.

Students have their own questions. How important is the material on the test to the final grade? Will he be tested on this material again? Often instructors go on to new material, and they don’t go back. The student might just as well forget what he just learned. He doesn’t need it anymore. I have seen students walk out of the classroom after a test, sigh, and I know they have already forgotten much of the material that they just aced a test on.

For students, other important things like cell phone conversations, texting, Facebook, and the latest episode of “Walking Dead or “Game of Thrones” intrude on studies and take up time that could be spent learning. Today’s students have too much information coming at them and they don’t have the time to learn what they can’t use or don’t think they will use.

Students forget what they learned for yesterday’s quiz. Students feel they will worry about the next class when that class comes. Learn and relearn as you go may not be the simplest method, but it is the most popular one. Teachers know that the best students probably learned little more than the poor students.

So why even use tests? If the material is almost immediately forgotten and students clearly don't understand the relevance of much of the material, then aren't tests a waste of everyone’s time?

They are. But we still use them. That is because a teacher can base her grades on test scores. Also some tests have nothing to do with the teacher. These are standardized tests which are so popular with administrators and textbook companies. Here teachers teach to the test. They have to. They had no input in creating the test and may not themselves know the relevance to their topic.

Teachers lose the joy of sharing knowledge they themselves found exciting, and the student loses the joy of learning he took with him to Kindergarten so many years ago and quickly lost in the maze of school.

Standardized tests take time away from learning about short stories,critical thinking and the lives of authors and historical greats. On top of that teachers are sometimes accused of cheating themselves if they learn what will be on the standardized test and they help the student prepare.

I have no idea who creates standardized tests, or why certain vocabulary words for instance are included. The tests seem a way of undermining the teacher, and getting rid of her if the students don’t do well. This ignores the fact that teachers teach and students learn. We can’t blame one individual if another has not his chore.

There has to be a better way.

Tests are old fashioned; Socrates used them. Or did he? Actually the Socratic method is question and answer, but as part of a discussion between students and teachers. There were no written exams in ancient Greece. No wonder they were such great scholars.

Even if Socrates had used written exams, do we still use the medical equipment that Hippocrates used? Are books still copied by monks and letters carried by the Pony Express? We have found better ways of doing most other jobs. Not teaching. Teaching still reties on written tests just like it did when our founding fathers were in school.

Testing itself is not a good way to measure learning, so shouldn’t we at least try to find other ways. One way would be to let students write their own tests and quiz each other on the material. Or let them test the instructor. I used to let my students quiz me on the assigned short stories. Sure they came up with some odd questions like, “What color were the main character’s anklets on page 14?”

I may not have known some of the answers, but we could all look it up. Even if the student made up things for his quiz, it was still fun, and we were all learning despite ourselves. These quizzes started conversations, and then we could talk about archetypes and plot types, and discuss the story. Students were more likely to tell me what they liked or didn’t like about the story. They stopped worrying about what they were supposed to get from the story. They got enjoyment and an understanding of the characters and the theme. It came more naturally than it would have in a test.

Attendance was very important with me. Even if the student was daydreaming and not paying one bit of attention, I always assumed, something was getting through to that student. Required attendance is much less scary than a quiz.

We must give teachers more autonomy in the classroom. Textbook salesmen and administrators are fine, but they need to do less dictating and more listening to both students and teachers. Teachers are professionals. Why are they being bullied by so many administrators, parents and board members? Get out of our way and let us do our jobs.

Make classes smaller so teachers and students can share more of the learning.

We can also give students more time in class to work on reading and doing assignments. If they get into the study habit in the classroom, they might be more likely to do it at home.

Discussions and essays are tougher to grade than multiple choice and true or false quizzes, but the student learns more and retains more. To save the teacher some time and to increase learning, essays can be read in class and or passed around the class room. That will make the classroom more of a community. Now that you have read this article, how about a test on its contents?

Just kidding.

The End

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