Testing Is Ridiculous – There Has To Be A Better Way

Posted on December 20, 2011


At a societal level, with public schools, we need to have some measure of accountability. We can’t simply blindly trust that a school is well run and that the students are receiving a great education (hell, we probably can’t even agree on what a great education is).

Right now multiple choice testing is the only way to create some degree of visible, cheap, scalable accountability.

Unfortunately testing sucks. Here’s the chronicle of testing situations that New York has been going through over the last 10 years:

New York City Student Testing Over The Past Decade

I mean if that doesn’t sound completely ridiculous, then I don’t know what does.

There has to be a better way of getting this done. Here are a few thoughts I’ve had over the past few years.

First of all if you’re going to test, recognize that it’s a pretty poor way to just actual holistic abilities. Generally they’re pretty divorced from any real world skills. If you’re not convinced of that then you may want to read the account of the school board member that took the FCAT.

I realize that it seems possible that you could simply create a better test, but at it’s heart, the process of test taking seems flawed. It encourages the cram cram cram mentality and then forget it all. Really we should be focusing on day-to-day, week-to-week progress more than on one time assessments. Technology may be able to play a role in this. Khan Academy has already built in to their system a more constant evaluation process. The problem is that it encourages drilling rather than any creative exercise.

Project-based learning is another possibility. Already part of the test-taking process usually includes a writing example, which is much closer to a project than the normal multiple choice testing. We could focus more on projects that can be displayed to the world as proof of an effective education. Students would build up a portfolio of work to show to future schools and potential employers.

Unfortunately projects introduce a level of subjectivity in to the grading process and aren’t nearly as cheap to implement and score.

Here’s the thing, though, when it comes to my own child, I don’t care how well she does on ineffective tests. I really only care that she stays engaged in learning and doesn’t fall in to the trap of thinking that all learning is hard and not fun and the only fun things are tv, video games, etc. The easiest way to fail in that regard is to test her, to make learning a pressure-filled, “you will fail if you don’t try hard enough”, environment.

So as a parent I really really really don’t want her to be taking tests.

So maybe the solution is to rely on parents for feedback. To provide them with a questionnaire that asks them about the students habits outside of school:

  • Is the student coming home energized and excited about what they’ve learned in school?
  • Is the student choosing to continue to learn outside of the classroom?
  • Is the student continuing to express curiosity about the world?
  • Is the student choosing to play video games or watch tv for the entire time they are out of the classroom?

This solution would also engage the parents in helping them to recognize the key factors that indicate a continuing curiosity and intrinsic desire to learn. Of course most people would probably find this to be too soft or would worry that they’re children are not getting the education they need to get in to a top college or get a great job. Personally I think that’s ridiculous. You want to ensure that they don’t get in to a great college or get a great job (or create a great job) then test the hell out of them. You’ll sap all their intrinsic motivations, creativity, and curiosity, creating an adult that has little motivation to improve themselves.

Anyways I’m beginning to ramble.

Personally I think the last solution is the best. If I were to run a school that is what I would focus on to make sure that parents had the opportunity to provide feedback to the school. I’d probably encourage my daughter to build up a portfolio of creative work to show the world as well. I’d encourage her to blog and program and build things and help other people figure out how to build things. But generally I’d just want to make sure that she’s doing what ever she’s doing because she’s choosing to do it, not to make some teacher happy or to pass some test, but to grow as an autonomous individual.

I have no idea how other parents would react to this, though, and that’s the biggest problem. We don’t know what we want, so we default to the lowest common denominator, multiple choice testing, because it’s hard to argue with whether a student gets a multiple choice question right or wrong (even though it’s actually far more subjective than most people give it credit for).

I don’t have a very good way to stop writing about this subject (it’s just too complex), so I’m just going to stop.