Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3…

person writing on white paper

I have a thing about tests. I understand that tests are one form of summative assessment for skills or content, I just don’t think it should be the only way. I also think teachers shouldn’t use them under the pretext that teaching “test-taking” is some kind of real world life skill that must be bolstered. Teachers stuck on tests are going about this all wrong.

When teachers give back tests, there is usually a score at the top of the page. Students react to that score in any number of ways, but it’s really dependent on their history with scores and grades. A lower than expected score may instill sadness or frustration. A higher than expected score, may instill happiness or relief. An expected score may instill satisfaction. Under all circumstances, feedback plays no part in the subsequent emotion. There is no drive to use the feedback never mind look at the feedback because a satisfactory or expected score won’t motivate them to improve further and a low score’s accompanying negative feelings will overwrite any motivation to improve (you know, why bother?).

In high school, I remember when a teacher handed back a test. They were desperate to give us monumental feedback that would guide our next steps. Instead, our focus was on the grade at the top and many of us immediately pulled out our calculators to see what impact that grade would have on our overall mark. In the background we heard our teachers go over all the nuances and errors in our work, but all we heard was akin to the sound that teacher makes in a Charlie Brown episode (Mwa, mwa, mwa, mwa…).

Let me break it down for you.

If a teacher is bent of making students really good test-takers, the act of test-taking will not make a student a better test-taker. Students are not going to magically figure out how to study and become a more effective test-taker without being guided with strategies on how to study, review, and embed learning into memory. So, if a teacher is going to give tests, if that is the means of their assessment, they should be sure to provide students with the opportunity to study in class and show them how to study. A lengthy explanation of what’s on the test is not the same thing.

When I prepare students for mem checks (memorization of lines which is like a test) in Drama 10, we go through and practice ways in which they can do that. For example, we talk about how reading over lines, over and over, is not how to memorize lines. I teach them to cover, recite, look, and repeat. They can also write out their lines or ask a sibling or parent to recite other lines. I emphasize that as soon as an error is made, to redo the section of the script again over and over, before moving on. I show them how to set up their phone’s voice memo feature: record other characters’ lines, leave a long pause (so they can say their line out loud) and then record the line. With this strategy, not only will they be able to practice (sort of with themselves) but they will get immediate reassurance of their correctness or incorrectness. These strategies can be equally effective in an academic class: flash cards, work with a parent, etc. In all situations, teach students that when an error is made, don’t just nod and skip to the next one, but instead lap back to the mistake until it’s firm, move on, and be sure to come back to it. Set it to memory. Interleaving and spacing is the key.

person writing on brown wooden table near white ceramic mug

Ultimately, if students don’t know how to prepare for a test and repeatedly meet with failure, they will feel like failures themselves.

As well, a grade on a page, be it a level or score is not necessarily indicative of poor study skills or habits, but it could be of test anxiety. Repetitively placing students in high-anxiety situations isn’t going to numb or curb the anxiousness, but will, instead, exacerbate it unless quality interventions and strategies are put into action. This very notion that practicing test taking will make a student a better test taker is absurd if it is done in absence of feedback, skill building, and anxiety-reducing strategies. In fact, if ego is invoked with every test placed before a student, it’s no wonder that students choose to skip on test day s or cheat…they are trying to find some way to release the pressure.

Further, if 30% (or more) of a grade book is weighted for tests/quizzes and students continuously meet them without success, what does this do to their self-esteem and, down the road, any ambition to go on to post-secondary learning? This reliance on tests as the only form of summative assessments is developing a culture of students who feel they cannot move forward, that learning ends with a test. They are focusing on what they can’t do as opposed to what they can do. It’s deflating learners instead of firing them up.

Additionally, if teachers measure work habits by study habits, and study habits by test scores, then work habits are also skewed because they are wrongfully aligned to test scores. Students who do poorly on tests may be pigeonholed as having poor work habits when they really just don’t know how to study, don’t’ have access to home support, or….I think my point is clear.

Some tests are very convenient to give. Multiple choice tests that involve blackening in bubble sheets and running them through the little zippy machine are easy. Assessment done in a flash! Multiple choice tests have their place and they work great as retrieval practice opportunities but as a summative assessments, how can one really know if a student guessed correctly or actually learned the concept? Great tests are aligned to standards and give students the opportunity to explain their thinking. Yes, these are more time-consuming to assess, but if it means that our assessment is more sound, why wouldn’t teachers use them?

Learning takes time and can’t be confined to a few weeks or even a grade level. The above cartoon is a fantastic example of how teaching a unit, testing, and moving on is outdated and well…inconsiderate of the pace in which students learn. Consider Drivers’ education. The driving test is the best evidence of learning. If one fails their test, though, there is always the opportunity to garner feedback from the evaluator, take more lessons with an instructor, practice more, and try the road test again. So telling students that there are no re-writes or redos in the “real world” is a falsehood. In the real world, people get feedback from their employers, evaluations that make them better at their jobs, and opportunities for do-overs ALL THE TIME. Slow down, wait until students have at least the most basic level of achievement, and THEN move on.

brown wooden heart shaped ornament

Kids need variety and triangulation of evidence. Tests can be an act of trying to fit all students in the same box at the same time. It’s cookie cutter assessment. There is only one way to show me your learning, and if you don’t, too bad, we’re moving on. Students learn in a variety of ways and should not only have multiple attempts to show competence, but also a voice and choice in how they show their learning. Tests aren’t exactly engaging neither. Ask a student who graduated from high school and it’s highly unlikely they’ll talk about how tests changed their life.

Differentiation is also important. Our classrooms are becoming more diverse. Teachers need to become sound differentiated instructional leaders. Teachers need to be open to different ways of showing learning and not view that as a modification. If teachers keep their eye on the objective, the standard, then the possibilities for students to show us what they know are limitless. Teachers need to “use (their) professional judgement to flexibly respond to students in our teaching” (“Differentiating Instruction: It’s Not as Hard as You Think” on Youtube, by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull-Sypnieski)

But colleges and universities…there’s lots of tests/exams. Aren’t I steering them in the wrong direction if I don’t give them…? Yeah, I know how this feels. Teachers are pulled in two different directions. For the record, I mean no personal malice towards teachers who rely on tests because I know that they have their students’ best intentions in mind. They are trying to fit the curriculum into a short period of time. I get it. I really do. I just think teachers need to be open to change and recognize that there is loads of research to back up how students actually learn and how archaic practices aren’t doing them justice, nor are they preparing them for careers after high school. The adage that teachers must give tests because post-secondary institutions give tests is a thoughtful but misguided one.

First off, not all post-secondary departments rely on exams or tests. There has been a slow, but steady shift towards more project-based learning for sure (partly because pandemic expectations changed the focus from exam rigor to learning rigor). Secondly, I’ve seen some crazy expectations in course syllabi that makes me shake my head, including exams worth 80% of a grade. 80%!! How about teachers stop preparing students for post-secondary by mimicking or continuing to stroke that dysfunctionality in our classrooms?

Stress also hammers critical and creative thinking.

The right and left brain don’t work to potential under pressure. If teachers really want to see what students can do, showcasing their 21st century skills, teachers don’t need to draw them a bubble-bath and offer them in-class massages, but they should decrease the pressure of the environment. That’s when beautiful, creative things happen! If educators want to know more, I recommend The Feedback Fix by Joe Hirsch and Drive by Daniel H. Pink. Great books that discuss how learning happens.7

Perfectionism, anxiousness, and fear of opinion can lead to stress, and that affects creativity in a negative way. Whether that’s through a change in focus, or a change in approach, it’s better to be creative from a place of calm. Some of the most creative things have happened because of a laissez-faire approach to learning and work. Here’s free time, you must create something, but what you do and how you do it, once a week, is up to you. Post-it notes, Gmail, Google maps, LinkedIn, and other inventions are a result of the employer handing over 20% of the work day for personal project development.  All of these came about from easing restrictions and allowing for creativity.  Restraining students into test-taking is not how teachers build the innovative problem solvers of the future. “Creativity thrives when conditions are flexed not forced.  When the mind is at rest, we can be at our best.” (Joe Hirsch, The Feedback Fix). I was watching Shelley Moore today and she said it too: we’re training kids for yesterday instead of today and the future! (Mic drop!)

It’s not all bad news about tests. Tests can be a positive way to assess, but there are some alterations that need to be made so they honour the student and authentically assess standards.

  1. Give time in class to review. In class review gives teachers the opportunity to see where students are feeling challenged and allows for collaborative approaches to learning.
  2. Teach study skills and practice study skills. There will be tests, that is true. Teaching students how to embed their learning into long term memory and how to retrieve it means taking the time for retrieval practice. Strategies from Agarwal and Bain’s Powerful Teaching is a fantastic place to start. Retrieval practice in the form of interleaving and spacing helps students retain information. This active form of retrieval is so important in moments that we rely on memory to get out of chaotic, intense, or even dangerous situations. Peter C. Brown goes into depth in Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning about how quizzing oneself and actively recalling information embeds it into long term memory.
  3. Present the test as a sequence of cognitively complex questions so students can move along the sequence at their own pace. Agency…woot woot. But teachers should add in an element of feedback and time so students don’t purposely put on the brakes of learning (taking the path of least resistance) and actually push to their potential.
  4. Give feedback and second, third, even fourth chances without penalty. Then, allow and encourage students to change answers after feedback is given (like Howie does!). Real time feedback is incredible. I like to give bi-weekly unquizzes with feed forward style feedback and then another day to try again.
  5. Test less information over a longer period of time instead of more information crammed into a short period of time. Agarwal and Bain (Powerful Teaching) go into depth using Science to explain that less is more in chapter four. Teachers should make a compromise. Would you rather your students knew less of more, or more of less?
  6. Don’t call it a test. I don’t mean be sneaky. I mean get rid of the anxiety-inducing word that historically creates anxiety. “What do I remember,” “Unquiz,” “Brain dump,” there’s lots of ways to find out what students know and can do. Teachers should tell students they are measuring where they are at so they can set goals for the future, that it’s formative, and the information will help the teacher make their next steps so students can improve and grow. Be transparent with kids. Don’t make it the epitome of doom and gloom, sprinkled with “YOU MUST PASS. THIS IS YOUR ONLY CHANCE.” If teachers do that and give students time…and give them feedback, they’ll find they have students who are calmer and actually do better on these “tests.” In other words, the assessment will be a more accurate and authentic measure of what a teacher wants to find out…information!
Posted with permission.

I have to say though, if a teacher is stuck in a test rut, and desperate to get out and try alternatives to tests….please try it! Balance it out. Give a bit away and try a bit of new. The best move I made is giving retrieval practice (my students named it Momento time!) and bi-weekly unquizzes on paper. All these are low or no stakes opportunities to show me what they know. They get time to do corrections and those corrections always count. No half marks. Full marks. My goal by implementing these structures are to support students to remember and hold onto their learning. No Gotya!, just learning.

So when teachers are looking for answers that requires creativity, they aren’t unleashing students’ potential when they put them in a test situation to do it. When teachers give tests as the only way to gather assessment data, students have no other way to show what they know. How can teachers flip the switch?

Instead, why not dapple in 20% time, Genius Hour, or other types of project-based learning? Give students the opportunity to collaborate, critically think and find creative, real-world solutions using their subjects as the context of learning, instead of asking students to regurgitate what they’ve crammed into their brains the night before. Put the curricular competencies at the forefront as goals. What other ways can students provide evidence for these goals? How can they be part of the conversation? When students become part of the conversation, engagement increases. Show me an engaged test-taker. I dare you. Not going to find one. You might find one who is performance focused and loves the grades attached, but that’s not engagement. They like the carrot and are trying to avoid the stick. That’s not learning. Think tests or exams are the only way to present academic rigour? Try having students present a Ted-style talk about their learning. Talk about rigour!

A long time ago, I decided to build my classroom into one that is focuses on community, of lifelong learners, instead of great test-takers. Let’s debunk the myths that permeate and pollute our education system. Consider the impact tests have on students’ social-emotional well being. The future depends on it 21st century thinkers not test-takers.

Test the waters with fewer or no tests.


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