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Assessing Assessment

Is there a compelling argument that can be made in favor of frequent, short tests?  If you believe in what is known as the "testing effect," the answer is a resounding yes ("Tests Make Kids Smarter. Let's Give Them More," The New Republic, Oct. 7).  That's because test taking "bulks up the brain's neural connections and may force the brain to create multiple, alternative retrieval routes for accessing the same piece of information."  Research shows that students also fare better when they are required to apply the concepts on which they were tested to completely new contexts.

These are provocative claims that deserve attention because there is just enough truth in them to make them appealing.  As a result, they will be cited to justify the direction schools are moving.  In fact, they will likely accelerate it.  Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, goes so far as to propose hiring subject and test-writing experts to develop "10,000 short-answer and multiple-choice questions in each academic area."   The questions, along with the answers, would be posted on the Web to be used by teachers and students.  Emanuel says that the sheer number of questions would make it impossible to prep for through sheer memorization.

The latter claim is undoubtedly true, but Emanuel fails to understand the difference between teaching toward a test's actual items (e.g. the 10,000 questions) and teaching toward the broad body of knowledge and skills that a test's items represent (e.g. writing a persuasive essay on an unfamilar topic using evidence to support a thesis).  The first strategy is ethically indefensible, regardless of the number of items.  The second strategy is sound pedagogy.  Every effective teacher consciously or unconsciously structures lessons accordingly.  The higher the objective in terms of difficulty, the greater the need for appropriate practice followed by constructive feedback.  

The reason "how to" books in any field sell so well is that they promise a surefire recipe for success.  But they invariably disappoint because anything worthwhile mastering cannot be mastered by reading a series of questions and answers.  If that were not the case, schools would be turning out distinguished scholars by the thousands.  I'm not anti-testing.  It is an indispensable part of the learning process.  But not all tests are able to distinguish between students who have been taught well from those who have been taught poorly in achieving the highest cognitive objectives.


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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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