Testing, Testing! A Pointed Response to the NY Times
Since I am a passionate critic of the current state of testing in the United States, where No Child Left Behind bases its judgment of students, teachers, and school districts on the so-called End of Grade (EOG) form of item-response (multiple choice) testing, some people think I am against testing. Wrong! I agree with the findings of recent researchers that testing is, in fact, a great way to learn. Test early, test often, is my motto.
But (yes, there is a "but"): don't test simply to assess--test kids in order to help them to strive, to challenge themselves, and therefore to learn. Let students see how they do sooner, not later. Don't make it about cramming for a test. Integrate testing challenges into the learning as a process. Let them learn from the kinds of tests they excel at and the ones they don't. Let them help to design the test. Let them test one another. And let them help one another--including by other challenges, other tests--to do better the next time. That is the central component of real-time, in-process game-mechanic based testing. And it works. Always has, always will.
Here's the url for the New York Times piece by Pam Belluck, "To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test": http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/21/science/21memory.html?emc=eta1
My advocacy of "crowdsourced grading" isn't because I don't want students to achieve. It is quite the opposite. All of the best research, whether on tennis or foot races or chess or math or English grammar or foreign language learning or critical thinking or World of Warcraft suggests you do best when you have to mount a challenge. Challenging others challenges you--including in situations where you are working together towards a goal, towards a challenge. "Let's put on a show!" was the motto of old musicals and it always works. You set the goal, and you work together, and you achieve. That is true of all forms of testing.
As we are learning, the forms of testing we have inherited are new in human history, not quite a hundred years for the form of multiple choice, item response testing that now is considered the "standard" for how we measure. A lot of social science has gone into convincing parents who see their kids achieve remarkable things in the first five years of life, without a single multiple choice test to measure progress, that, once a kid hits school, learning needs to happen at scheduled intervals and in prescriptive fashion, reduced to a small circle colored in where the choices are narrowed to a very few options, some of them silly or nonsensical or trivial and only one of them "right." Really? Nothing about learning from birth to the advent of formal schooling suggests that is how we learn best. And very little after formal education is over suggests that is what inspires us in our daily lives or in the workplace.
School has created artificial goals that assess us as individuals and groups. Testing early and often, in real time, to understand what we have learned and what we need to learn, is almost the opposite of the standardized end-of-grade form of testing for which one needs to cram or even to attend "cram school." What you learn then is how to take tests. What you learn from repeated, real-time, in process testing is how to succeed.
I vote for that, for the testing to succeed, every time. We need to unravel the mystique of our current standardization metrics in order to understand more about the actual goals for testing. Is the testing to ensure that each school meets a minimum national standard and that, even though schooling has historically been delegated locally, there are some national expectations about curriculum? That is a worthy goal. (Remember, Texas school boards this year wanted to demote Thomas Jefferson as a Founding Father because he was a deist.) On the other hand, the goal of a national bar for what kids should learn is very different than the pedagogical goal of inspiring learning and encouraging students to aspire to learn more, including in areas where they may have little interest or aptitude. In those situations, the single End of Grade test is even more likely to lead to cramming, to studying for the test. And given the punitive stance towards school districts and teachers whose students do not earn passing grades on these tests, the institution of the EOG is likely to encourage "studying for the test," the most deplorably circular component of our current ideas of testing. That is, if you study for content, to help you learn, you reinforce what you know on build on it. With the End of Grade test, you teach and study to the form of the questions and the anticipated type and scope of questions such that the test becomes the end in itself, rather than a means to greater learning.
We need to learn more about how kids love to learn, feed their own learning, test themselves and one another. As usual, kids have a lot to teach us if we only stop thinking we have to make them all conform to a way of learning that is arbitrary and has little to do with how they learn on their owns and what they need to know to be able to learn for the rest of their lives.