Measuring student success is complex and needs to be done with precision. While standardised testing has its supporters, it is perhaps not the only way of measuring student success. With continued focus on overall student development today, how can important attributes such as creativity and critical thinking skills be analysed? What are the means to providing a complete picture of student achievement? – these are some of many questions that need our attention.
This is the second part of the interview in which he discusses the pros and cons of standardised testing.
Is increased testing, along with stricter standards, necessarily a better preparation for students who want to pursue university education?
Tying content and skills
The answer hinges upon what one means by “testing.” If testing and standards are tied to content rather than skills then we probably do not need them. However, there are positive signs that mass-testing services are starting to listen. I teach Advanced Placement History classes. In the last two years the College Board, the organization that created and governs the Advanced Placement Program, has shifted the AP History tests toward assessing the higher-order thinking skills of inference, analysis, and synthesis.
While content still plays a significant part, students cannot be successful on the exam without being fluent in these thinking skills. I recognize this shift as a positive development. Why? Because students in university need much more to learn how to think flexibly and creatively, combining learning from across disciplines, rather than to regurgitate what a professor says. As Alvin Toffler reminds us, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
We need to teach students how to think, how to rapidly assimilate information, and how to turn that thinking and information into new understandings. Tests focusing on content do not get us there. Assessing for higher-order thinking skills point in the right direction.
Standardised test scores are greatly influenced by non-academic factors, such as fatigue and attention – Can we justify fair assessment and equal opportunity in this case?
How fair is fair?
The bias is built into the question. Let’s stir the pot some more. Perhaps fair is not equal. Also, there are surely students who, on testing day, are having a particularly good day being able to apply their thinking skills and content knowledge. I have never heard a student complain that they were unusually sharp on testing day and therefore should have their test results thrown out.
Sometimes when a person complains of a test being unfair what he actually means is that he was unprepared or he did not have some kind of an advantage and therefore wishes for the examination to be discarded. Finally, it is not up to an external testing agency to ensure that kids are not fatigued or stressed. Nor is it possible for a testing agency to ensure that all student test-takers are equally prepared for the examination. In fact, it is impossible. It only necessary that the testing agency does it’s best to ensure that conditions under which the tests are given are as similar as possible.
Let’s acknowledge the reality that kids do not have equal access to quality education, and that some kids take better advantage of the opportunities they do have when compared with their peers. The challenge is more socio-economic than academic. Some kids are advantaged by birth, wealth, a stable household, or an effective school district. Conversely, other students are disadvantaged. These advantages, disadvantages, and choices accrue over time to mean real and often persistent patterns of academic disparity across towns and regions.
Is there a solution?
The impractical solution is to strive for the same instruction of the same content and skills at roughly the same time across a nation. Down that road lies “teacher-proofed” lessons and inflexible classroom practices. Standardization will be the norm in a way that will make standardized testing pale by comparison. It is the antithesis of individualized instruction, creative thinking, and problem solving. There will be little room for teachers to apply their professional skills and experience, and no room for students to pursue their interests.
Is it equal opportunity or equal outcome that we seek? Is it acceptable that some students will excel academically while others will not? Is the purpose of the K-12 system to produce college students or productive citizens? These are the compelling, necessary questions.
At EduTECH Asia, Chris Carter will be speaking on “Why test is not a four letter word”.
Don’t miss out on this gathering of educators. With over 2000 set to attend, make sure you’re part of the crowd!
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