What Does Classroom Testing Accomplish?

Sometimes I feel like a broken record when it comes to classroom testing. I am not a fan of it, and I think it is particularly harmful in the history classroom when the tests focus almost exclusively on rote memorization of multiple-choice questions. There may be a place for some classroom testing and perhaps even a limited number of multiple choice questions on such tests. When I was teaching, however, I was forced to work with pre-written assessments that were dominated by multiple choice questions. By giving students these sorts of tests, the concept of rote memorization was valued over the ability to critically think and make an argument about a given topic. The argument for tests being written in this manner was that A) they were easy to grade and B) the state test (the End of Course Exam in Missouri) was going to look just like it.

Over the past few days I’ve taken some time to read Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education by Clark Aldrich. The book is very short and easy to read, taking me no more than two hours to go through the whole thing. Some of Aldrich’s “unschooling rules” are tough to put into practice, especially for teachers in poor districts. Rule 12 stipulates that “Internships, Apprenticeships, and Interesting Jobs Beat Term Papers, Textbooks, and Tests.” That is certainly true and should be encouraged by parents and teachers alike, but asking teachers to find volunteer opportunities and internships for their students throughout their local area is tough to ask of them when they are already being asked to sponsor school clubs, coach, and teach upwards of 150 or more students.

That said, I think Aldrich nails it when it comes to the fallacy of classroom testing. Testing does accomplish something for our students, but it may not be what we want to actually teach them. The following is from pages 115-116:

Rule 45: Tests Don’t Work. Get Over It. Move On.

During the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the number of doctors rose dramatically. This despite the fact that doctors did not help their patients, and in many cases, they made things worse. There was a desperate need for doctors that overwhelmed the reality.

That brings us to today’s school-based technique of testing. The vision is to have concentrated moments of pure evaluation, where students are asked to demonstrate what they know. And we want tests to work so badly. We love the idea of a simple-to-deploy, objective mechanism that can sort, motivate, and diagnose–the equivalent of quality control at a car manufacturing plant looking for defects.

The only problem is that tests do everything wrong.

Tests only test the test taker’s ability to prepare for and take tests. For example, there is no skill worth having that can be measured through a multiple-choice exam. Worse, tests emphasize exactly the wrong skills. They emphasize the memorization of massive amounts of facts that neurologically have a half-life of about 12 hours. They focus on short-term rewards through cramming to compensate for a failure in long-term development of value. It is no wonder we have financial meltdowns caused by successful students [Ouch!]

We have to swallow a hard pill. The issue is not how do make tests better? Or how can we have more or different types of tests? Or how do we arrange for more parts of a school program (such as a teacher’s worth) to be based on tests? The reality is, tests don’t work except as a blunt control-and-motivation mechanism for the classroom, the academic equivalent of MSG or sugar in processed food. In place of schools as testing centers, we need to begin imagining and setting up learning environments that involve no tests at all, that rely on real assessment and the creation of genuine value instead. [Unfortunately, Aldrich fails to clarify what constitutes a “real assessment.”]

So, what constitutes a real assessment?