The Tyranny of Testing

During June, I presented at a large conference in Singapore (TC2014) and conducted a hands on workshop for a much smaller audience of international teachers at the MIT SEPT program (Science and Engineering Program for Teachers). I was struck by the universal questions concerning how to be sure you cover all of the material on the tests when you use a more project-based approach. Teachers and school systems everywhere are so beholden to testing, whether they buy in or not, that high scores are synonymous with learning. I think we truly believe that there is no proof of learning without high scores on fairly rote tests. Apparently, all of us who graduated from school decades ago and have not been subjected to routine tests must be learning nothing!

The sheer numbers of students in our classrooms, school systems and colleges have created this testing monster. Opportunities decrease at every level, so some means of sorting out needs to be employed. And somehow, we feel the current system, dominated by the first five letters of the alphabet and the ubiquitous #2 pencil is our best bet. As an AP Physics teacher who just checked the score reports of three exams (APB and APC Mechanics and E&M), I see a very different picture than the picture I saw every day in class talking to and observing my own students. No one knows that but the teacher, yet those AP test scores will carry far more weight going forward. Why? Does the College Board really know the potential of those young people better than I do? Some of my students did exceptionally well as I expected. There are always a few students who just “get” physics and would probably do well regardless of teaching approach. But there were a number of them whose test scores did not correlate well to the depth of understanding I saw in the classroom. Some outperformed my expectations, some did far worse. As an AP teacher with many years experience, I know this happens but I think it is becoming less predicatble due to student and teacher overload. I also know that a number of my students with scores less 5 have gone on to major in Physics and are doing graduate work at some very prestigious universities.

How do we equate 3 hours of testing with all of the work that goes into 180 days of school? It seems insane! The AP exams are college level exams conducted without the benefit of all else in a student’s life being suspended, as it is in college. Many students take 4-5 AP courses and exams. By the time they get to the Physics exam at the beginning of the second week, they look exhausted, are partially sick and, as seniors, are usually grappling with papers and projects assigned in other courses (often for other AP classes that have had their exam in that first week!). I suspect some write their name, make a nice pattern, draw a few pictures and go to sleep. They leave self-defeated, thinking they know nothing when, in fact, they know far more physics than anyone did when I was their age. Again, it is insane!

We, and many other developed countries, have given away any real control over true learning by subscribing to the need for high stakes, standardized testing. It takes a large amount of control out of the classroom teacher’s hands, it removes learning from the real world and it often creates inequities in the system. One look at the rise of the “tuition” (tutoring) industry in many Asian nations and the number of SAT/GRE/GMAT/MCAT test prep programs here in the US should spark a concern that access to more opportunities will become the domain of those who can afford it. Education is, in many cases, far removed from being a social equalizer.

More importantly, as all the questions I dealt with in the past few weeks indicate, it limits teachers’ willingness to try new approaches. We know education needs to change – the modern world makes that evident every day. But until assessment changes, that won’t happen. We need to wake up, maybe take some lessons from the Finnish, follow the struggles of Singapore to move beyond Cambridge-type testing, and, most of all, listen to our own young people. They should never finish a course they have worked hard at feeling like they have failed. The repercussions of that can alter their lives and, undoubtedly, have a high social cost. Education and learning need to be real… When was the last time you sharpened your #2 pencil???

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