Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Testing.. Testing...

When I went to Junior High, the school I was coming from didn't use tests. This meant a couple of things.

First, I wasn't accustomed to taking tests. I didn't have any sort of "test anxiety" and really enjoyed any sort of "quiz" or "questionnaire" type thing.

Second, the junior high had no idea what to do with us. They didn't know which classes to put us in, or what to expect from us at all. It mean we all got put in the lowest/easiest classes. The main problem we had in getting used to a more typical school program was that we had to make an effort not to get bored.

Testing, as it is most often done, is a very odd thing.
Mostly, it's a poorly done thing, that has no real connection to the material being tested, and gives results that are only meaningful in gauging how well someone takes that test.

Most tests are poorly designed. Multiple choice tests, in particular.

As I went through junior high and high school, I had a clear advantage in test taking, since I had no anxiety about them. I spent more time analyzing the test itself, than I did filling in the answers. I found that by far, most of the time, with a multiple choice test, it was easy to eliminate at least two of the choices. That left two, usually, so guessing was 50/50. Wow.

The other thing I noticed about most tests is that when you get your score, or grade, that's often all you get. By that time, knowing that you missed question #15 doesn't have much meaning, being so out of context. Since the purpose of the test was to GENERATE A GRADE, rather than to measure or improve learning, that didn't matter.

If people give a test to find out what you know, then don't let you evaluate what you did or didn't know, what was the point again, exactly?

It became more and more clear that tests and grades had little to nothing to do with learning.

During high school, I had two other experiences that helped me see this.

One was in a class where I took a little longer to fully grasp the material. We had frequent quizzes, and I tended not to do well on them. About a week or two later, I would really understand the material, and if given the same quiz then, I would have done very well. The interesting thing about that was this: the final exam was cumulative, covering the entire year of material. I got the highest grade in the class on the final. By that time, I fully understood all the material. The rest of the class crammed for the final, but couldn't bring most of the material back to mind after testing and forgetting it as we went along.  Because of the way the grading worked, many of them ended the year with an A or B, but without understanding the material. I ended up with a C- but knew the material cold. This was a HUGE suggestion that tests and grading don't quite work the way we are led to believe. The grade became more important than the understanding.

The other experience was that in one of my classes, I had a teacher who, to this day, is one of the best I've ever had. Why do I think that? Two reasons. One is that he was dynamic and engaging in class. The other is that I adored his tests. Turns out I may have been the only student ever to have that opinion. Most students hated them, for the very same reason I loved them. First, they were not multiple choice. It was all "essay questions." Basically, he presented material, and then, wanted us to tell him what we understood from it. Not regurgitating what he said, or guessing from a list of choices, but simply what we thought, what we learned, what we remembered, what we still wanted to know. It probably was a challenge to figure out how to grade them, but they gave a FAR better assessment of what the students were understanding. We not only got to give answers, but to explain them. Perfect for me. Like having a conversation.

Turns out, the best way to know what someone actually knows is to... ask them. And then let them answer. Talk about it. Let them show you. Many things can't be reduced to questions on a page.

Since then, I've been in a variety of situations where I've needed to take tests. I still evaluate each test. Most have been not very good, at best. Some are truly atrocious- and sadly, those have been tests where understanding the material really mattered.

I've seen college students break out in a cold sweat over a test that did not affect their grade, simply because it carried the word "test." I've seen adults who are extremely competent and skilled healthcare providers be far more stressed about passing a test on something they know they know, than they are about demonstrating those skills in the real world.

As you may have figured out by now, I love taking tests- but overall, I am not a big fan of tests at all. The best tests I've seen are those that are intended to help someone self-assess. Not those that generate a grade. Not those that are set up to be more important than the skills and knowledge itself.

As my kids have grown up, we only used a standard written test one time. It was required by the state, and it was one of the most stupid tests I've ever seen. When my 10 year old tested as "post high school ability" I decided we didn't need to do any more of that, state-required or not. So we stopped.

All of them have taken written tests elsewhere since then, and had no trouble at all. I suspect there aren't many times when someone's first experience with a written exam is when they get their Learner's Permit to drive, but it has happened. :-)

I've since taken classes about teaching, and while writing a lesson plan was a big deal, test design wasn't really covered. That's too bad, because I think designing a good test is a fun thing to work on. I find designing a test to be far more valuable than TAKING a test. What do I want people to know? How can I tell if they do? What sort of evaluation would be valuable? Or, the flip side: what do I want to know? How can I be sure that I do?  Some things are easily measured, some need to be demonstrated, and others, it may not be possible to know whether someone else fully understands. Understanding is such an ongoing thing.

Going back to my childhood... maybe the most important thing I learned from attending a school that didn't use tests is that they are not necessary. I've never had to doubt that. Instead, I've had the freedom to explore the entire concept, without stress. I can appreciate a test that is useful to me, and ignore the rest.

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