Time for a test on student testing
“Will you test my spaghetti sauce?” I ask anyone who happens to pass through the kitchen. Typically the person dips in a spoon, tastes, looks puzzled for a moment, and then says it’s got too much of this or too little of that. I then add whatever miscellaneous ingredients seem promising.
Testing students in schools and universities is almost nothing like that.
A spoonful of sauce taken from a pot gives you a pretty good idea of how a ladleful will taste on a plate of spaghetti. But a quiz, exam, or other test of a student’s knowledge – even a take-home essay assignment – provides only a tiny glimpse into what the student actually knows and understands.
As social studies of science and technology have shown, all tests presuppose that the test is similar to something else “out there” in the world. Technicians determine that a car at a crash-test facility is similar to a car on the freeway packed with kids, luggage, and the family dog. But identifying two things as similar requires setting aside the many ways they are also different: we may notice that two people have a similar skin color, which may obscure their many differences. To what extent is a student’s performance on a test similar to all the facts, concepts, skills, and long-term capacities and inspirations that educators hope their students will take away from the classroom?
Student tests mostly show how well students take tests. Beyond that different kinds of tests vary enormously in how well they stimulate and assess student learning. A quiz may compel my students to get the reading done, but that doesn’t mean it tells me very much about what they’ve learned, and it may induce them to focus on isolated facts rather than genuine understanding.
Educational researchers have repeatedly confirmed what many teachers say, and what I’ve seen first-hand as my kids have gone through school: over-reliance on standardized tests corrupts the curriculum and destroys intellectual curiosity. And when it comes to evaluating teachers, standardized tests easily produce misleading results. It’s important to assess student learning and teacher effectiveness, but we should do it in a smart way that actually fosters improvement.
Unfortunately, increased reliance on standardized tests has long been a nationwide trend. The New York Times reports that 30 states now link teacher evaluations to student test scores, and at least 13 states use student test scores to account for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. And at universities, increasing class size pushes faculty to rely more on standardized tests.
A key issue in the massive Chicago teacher’s strike, now entering its second week, is the role of standardized tests in both teaching students and evaluating teachers. Among other things, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants the percentage of teacher evaluations based on student tests to rise from 25 percent to 40 percent over the next five years.
Emanuel sends his own kids to a lavish private school, the University of Chicago Lab School, whose director has criticized efforts to measure learning outcomes with standardized tests.
Most importantly, the debate over standardized tests is not just about pedagogy, but the purpose of education itself. As Henry A. Giroux argues, excessive use of standardized tests turns teachers into deskilled technicians and fosters “curricular models that devalue critical thought and reduce imaginative inquiry to the teaching of marketable skills.” Education becomes vocational training and loses its capacity to reduce social inequality and enrich democracy.
Tests increasingly permeate our lives. Genetic tests, intelligence tests, personality tests, relationship tests – none of them gives a complete picture of what it claims to measure.
Maybe it’s time to start testing politicians on what they know about tests. It might not tell us how well they understand the issue, but it could be an enlightening experience for everyone. Or better yet: educators could start including a few questions on standardized tests on every standardized test. That could promote the sort of critical thinking that standardized tests so often undermine.