Do We Really Need Testing to Learn?

I don’t like tests. I have never been very good at it. I get extremely anxious in tests, making me forget half of the things I studied. Throughout the years I got used to them and performed better, but I never thought much of them. I could never understand what was the purpose of doing them when a few minutes after taking the test I forgot everything I learned. Tests were brought to my attention again when I heard that parents in some communities have formed “opt-out” groups, removing their children from federally mandated and district-required tests because they thought that their children were tested too frequently and spent too much time taking them. My doubts about testing surfaced again, particularly because modern jobs require employees to have a new set of skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and collaboration, that are difficult to assess with traditional tests. Assessment does not stop when we graduate from school, it goes on differently. In the workplace, we are assessed based on the items we produce and the skills we applied in producing them. No one quizzes us at the end of the day to see how much we learned that day. Nonetheless, learning happens daily and it accumulates to a body of experience that helps us perform our jobs better. So, if the ultimate goal of school is to get kids ready for careers, why focus on tests that do not result in assessing the skills that society values today–entrepreneurial capability, effective communication, rapid application of recent scientific advances in new products and processes, and creativity.

In 2009 the common core standards was launched to address the changing landscape of the workplace and equip students with a new set of skills that modern jobs require. Many educators were hoping that with the launch of the common core, teaching and assessment would focus more on problem-solving and the process of getting to an answer instead of focusing on the answer itself. To their surprise, even those process-oriented skills were going to be assessed with a standardized test – either the Smarter Balanced Assessment or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Making it clear that getting rid of the old paradigm of teaching was not going to happen that fast. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who shared parents concern about testing, still kept advocating for annual tests as an educational tool. The fact that universities are still heavily relying on testing for college admission is also an important reason why testing in schools will not disappear very soon.

It is hard to let go of the things we know and feel comfortable with and education is no exception. In fact, education has a reputation for resisting change. However, it is particularly difficult to resist change in view of the continuous technological advancement that never stops. To keep justifying the value of testing, a theory that shows its unknown values can be a blessing in disguise. Such a theory is retrieval practice. Retrieval practice is a process of calling up information from memory, that scientists have found to produce higher levels of activity in particular areas of the brain when compared with simply restudying the material,. The process of pulling up information from memory also fosters what researchers call deep learning. Students engaging in deep learning are able to draw inferences from,and make connections among, the facts they know and are able to apply their knowledge in varied contexts. When the performance of students using retrieval practice was compared to students conducting concept-mapping, retrieval practice students were found to have better recall of concepts presented in the text than the concept-mapping group. They were also better able to draw inferences and make connections among multiple concepts contained in the text. Overall, retrieval practice was about 50 percent more effective at promoting both factual and deep learning. Such striking evidence is a powerful justification to keep testing students. According to its supporters, testing helps students learn, we just have to do it right.

I have no reason to cast doubt on retrieval practice. I believe that pulling up information from memory improves student learning and is far better than restudying material. The part I can’t understand is why it is called testing. In my eyes, this is just learning. As a young student, that is how teachers expected us to treat questions they posed. We were supposed to read the material, look at the questions and respond from memory, using our own words. It was not called testing. It was called questions and answers. Just because students are expected to respond from memory does not necessarily mean it is a test. When I try to rephrase information using my own words, it is a memory recall because I have to clearly know what I am writing about and articulate it accordingly. In fact, the entire process of rephrasing learned material is iterative and therefore requires multiple recalls into memory, which increases student understanding. However, it does not necessarily justify test taking, that is always bundled with a negative psychological effect that influences student performance negatively.

Doubts about testing have not ceased even in view of the positive outcomes of retrieval practice and some of the questions asked go like this:If testing is such a great way to learn, why aren’t our students, who are tested more often than other countries, doing better when compared with countries, such as Finland and Singapore, which regularly place well ahead of the U.S. in international evaluations. Dr. Yong Zhao, world-renowned author,scholar, and professor of education at University of Oregon, casts further doubt on the value of testing. He conducted a study in which he discovered that “Countries that score highly, have students with lower confidence.” Data he gathered from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) reveal a negative correlation between high math scores and confidence. Similarly,in his analysis of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA),a test that analyzes how countries score in reading, math and science, Zhao found that the countries with lower scores had students who reported higher interest in the subjects.

High stakes tests concern Zhao most because they are suppressing creativity and innovation, and since not everything can be covered in the test, student’s educational experiences are narrowed. Moreover,“constant ranking and sorting” creates stress and makes students less confident. All these have led Zhao to question the value of tests altogether. If our goal, he says, is to prepare students for careers and today’s careers require skills that are difficult to test, such as entrepreneurial attitude, then why focus on test scores that seem to produce the opposite effect.

The alternative, Zhao suggests, is to give students more autonomy over their learning and emphasize the importance of making authentic products that solve problems. Zhao believes that the goal has to be to create a new middle class based on creativity. To accomplish that we need to begin with the individual and build upwards from there. This allows each person to become uniquely great at something. And when students are passionate about anything, they can then be creative and entrepreneurial.

In such a project-based learning environment, teachers roles and student assessments have to change fundamentally. Teachers should be human mentors. Children have to take ownership of their learning and when students encounter setbacks, teachers can step in to challenge them and push them forward. Student achievement and progression should be determined by teachers, not a state test. Projects, according to an article, by Duckor and co-author Daniel Perlstein, should be evaluated by asking students to demonstrate knowledge, understand various perspectives on it, connect it to other learning, make conclusions based on varying sets of conditions and be able to discuss its relevance. These elements should be part of subject-based portfolios that students create and have to defend in front of a committee that includes teachers, students and outside adults. Perlstein points out that the criteria for evaluating such education is by asking whether parents are satisfied with the education their children are receiving or if students are engaged and excited to come to school? Those measures of accountability don’t carry much weight when it comes to funding, teachers salaries or national rankings, but might be the most important for encouraging life-long learners. Moving away from tests as the only means to measure knowledge, both at the school level and on state tests, frees teachers up to teach in more dynamic ways and encourages students to become creative knowledge producers, just like they will be expected to function at the workplace.