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Testing Gone Wild

What began as a better way of determining what teachers have taught and what students have learned has taken on a life of its own.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Florida, which was in the vanguard of the testing movement ("States Listen as Parents Give Rampant Testing an F, "The New York Times, Nov. 10).

Many schools there spend on average 60 to 80 days out of the 180-day school year on standardized testing alone.  This does not take into account the days that teacher-designed tests are given.  The result is that in a few districts some students are tested every day.

I agree that testing this way is detrimental to learning.  But I hasten to point out that testing every day can be a highly effective strategy, depending on how it is carried out.  For example, if students are asked to actively respond to a question or series of questions posed by their teacher, this is a form of testing.  It provides both teacher and students with immediate feedback. It is indispensable to learning.

When I was working on my California teaching credential, one of the required courses was taught by a young W. James Popham, who went on to become a renowned expert on assessment.  Although there were some 100 students in the crowded lecture hall, he periodically stopped instruction each time the class met to pose a question that could be answered by a simple show of hands. Popham then provided the correct response. This strategy helped me better understand the material than just taking notes. He was testing his students, but he was doing so in a positive manner without high-stakes.

The research on this began in 1916, when Arthur Gates, a psychologist at Columbia University, set out to determine what would be the ideal ratio of study to recitation ("Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing," The New  York Times, Sept. 4). I realize that learning is more than recitation, which is memorization.  But the point is that active response is better than passive attention.  Even when students answer incorrectly, they prime their brains for what's coming later on.

I think the primary objection to Florida's and other states' approach is that it involves high stakes.  I don't blame parents for their opposition. But rather than conclude that frequent testing by its very nature is the villain, let's remember that it can be an ally when carried out correctly. 

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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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