I oppose and support more student testing

I enjoyed “Testing, the Chinese Way” for its support of frequent, low-stakes “formative” student testing:

President Obama’s Race to the Top educational competition… includes and encourages more reliance on what educators call “formative tests” or “formative assessments.” These are not the big once-a-year or once-in-a-lifetime exams, like the SATs, but a stream of smaller, less monumental tests, designed in theory, at least, primarily to help students and their teachers know how they’re doing.

Some education experts hail the change as a step forward from the ideological dark ages. “Research has long shown that more frequent testing is beneficial to kids, but educators have resisted this finding,” said Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Of course, the tests have to be age-appropriate, Professor Cizek notes, and the Race to the Top program includes funds for research to develop new exams. Filling in three pages of multiple-choice bubbles may not be appropriate for young children. Likewise “high stakes” tests — like the Chinese university entrance exam, which alone determines university placement — create anxiety and may unfairly derail a youngster’s future based on poor performance on a single day.

But Professor Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better,” he said. “Kids don’t get self-esteem by people just telling them they are wonderful.”

Ideally, the feedback loop between a student answering a test question and receiving feedback would be 0 seconds. Immediate feedback maximizes the student’s opportunity to learn from her mistakes, especially if feedback includes an explanation of the correct answer.

Instantaneous feedback is impossible in traditional teacher-centric classrooms. But it is totally feasible with computers, at least for concrete tasks, like solving math problems or learning new words in a foreign language. Even in more creative subjects, like creative writing, computers have automated some of the analysis, grading, and feedback that teachers have traditionally done. Also, studies have shown that contemplating a question before delving into the relevant material enhances the student’s ability to grasp that material.

So, there are many reasons to embrace such testing and weave it into the learning process to let students quickly identify and correct errors. Instead, the Bush Administration pushed infrequent, high-stakes tests that provide students little or no useful feedback. In short, America embraced the exact wrong kind of tests — time-wasting, anxiety-producing, curriculum-narrowing tests.

Posted by James on Monday, September 13, 2010