The research gives testing an F

February 16, 2008 at 9:20 pm Leave a comment

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FINALS week and the school goes effectively into something akin to lock-down. Students are tense, withdrawn, depressed. So are the teachers. For me it’s the most depressing week of the semester.

For the past couple of years I’ve managed to work round it completely. Instead of a final where students work in isolation for an hour-plus to show how well they cope with stress, I’ve organized sessions where students pick a couple of challenging questions from a packet and work collaboratively in groups to show their best work.

Each question is labelled with the math skill most needed. The kids are asked to pick questions based on the skills they’ve not fully understood during the semester.

The room has usually been buzzy with chatter. If they get stuck, I help out. When everyone has had enough the kids complete a form explaining why they should get the grade they think they deserve. Then we play chess.

The final grade is based on a descriptive grades rubric which the kids were given on day one of the semester. All work throughout the semester is graded on descriptive rubrics.

The policy of other teachers varies: Some run sessions which amount to little more than giving a quiz right through to the full-blown terror thing. 

Finals brings out the simmering discussion between the Skinnerite behaviourists who sincerely believe you train students to behave like learners in the hope they become learners…and constructivists who believe students construct meaning and learning for themselves and their teachers try to create the atmosphere where that happens. 

I’m a constructivist. And I don’t believe testing helps students create their own meaning which in turn becomes learning. In fact, I believe testing can be a crippling blow to the learning hopes of many pupils.

My aspirations are summed up by this brief section from Alfie Kohn’s The Schools our Children Deserve:

“… the best teachers do not rely much on paper-and-pencil tests because they rarely need them to know how their students are doing. Teachers who base their practice on a constructivist theory of learning are always watching and listening… this kind of informal assessment is continuous, making things like quizzes very nearly superfluous.

 “We might even say that the more a teacher needs formal tests to gauge student achievement, the more something is wrong. (With direct instruction, the teacher is talking more than listening, so traditional exams would be seen as necessary.)

“As parents, we shouldn’t be worried about teachers who rarely give tests; we should be worried about those who need to give frequent tests because they have no feel fo how their students’ minds work.”

So, unburdened by the need to spend hours with my red pen ticking and counting and working out percentages to many decimal places… I spent some time reading some research on testing.

The Assessment Reform Group, based at the UK’s Cambridge University school of education, has been in the lead in argueing for constructivist forms of assessment. Its pamphlet Testing, Motivation and Learning a classic. It reviewed 180-plus studies. It is tempting to simply quote the document in full… but here’s a representative selection of its conclusions.

Testing has a negative affect on pupil motivation.

The self-esteem of low-achieving pupils is particularly adversely affected by testing.

The testing ethos narrows the curriculum.

When tests pervade the ethos of the classroom, performance is more highly valued than what is being learned.

Repeated test practice encourage pupils to avoid responsibility and effort. It is detrimental to higher-order thinking.

Pupils should not be faced with tests in which they are unlikely to experience success.

“What emerges is strong evidence of the negative impact of testing on pupils’ motivation… Many aspects of the impact have significant consequences for pupils’ future learning. and thus are causes for concern.”

“One impact of the tests was the reduction in self esteem of those pupils who did not achieve well.”

“Pupils are aware of repeated practice tests and the narrowing of the curriculum. Only those confident of success enjoy the tests. In taking tests, high achievers are more persistent, use appropriate test taking strategies and have more positive self-perceptions than low achievers. Low achievers become overwhelmed by assessments and de-motivated by constant evidence of their low achievement. The effect is to increase the gap between low and high achieving pupils.”

“Lower achieving pupils are doubly disadvantaged by tests. Being labelled as failures has an impact on how they feel about their ability to learn. It also lowers further their already low self-esteem and reduces the chance of future effort and success. Only when low achievers have a high level of support (from school or home), which shows them how to improve, do some escape from this vicious circle.”

“When tests pervade the ethos of the classroom, test performance is more highly valued than what is being learned. When tests become the main criteria by which pupils are judged, and by which they judge themselves, those whose strengths lie outside the subjects tested have a low opinion of their capabilities.”

“The use of repeated practice tests impresses on pupils the importance of the tests. It encourages them to adopt test-taking strategies designed to avoid effort and responsibility. Repeated practice tests are, therefore, detrimental to higher order thinking.”

“The evidence suggests that teachers can be very effective in training pupils to pass tests even when the pupils do not have the understanding or higher order thinking skills that the tests are intended to measure. When test results are used for making decisions that affect the status or future of pupils, teachers or schools (‘high stakes tests’), teachers adopt a teaching style that emphasises transmission of knowledge. This favours those pupils who prefer to learn by mastering information presented sequentially. Those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences are disadvantaged and their self-esteem is lowered. External tests have a constricting effect on the curriculum, resulting in emphasis on the subjects tested at the expense of creativity and personal and social development.”

“The results of tests that are ‚”high stakes” for individual pupils have been found to have a particularly strong impact on those who receive low grades. However, tests that are high stakes for schools rather than for pupils (such as the national tests in England and state-mandated tests in the US) can have just as much impact.”

“Instead of motivation increasing with age, older pupils feel more resentment, anxiety, cynicism and mistrust of standardized achievement tests. Girls are reported as expressing more test anxiety than boys. Girls are also more likely to think that the source of success or failure lies within themselves rather than being influenced by external circumstances. This has consequences for their self-esteem, especially when they view their potential as fixed.”

“Feedback from the teacher that focuses on how to improve or build on what has been done (described as task-related) is associated with greater interest and effort. Feedback that emphasises relative performance, for example marks or grades which are formally or informally compared with those of others, encourages pupils to concentrate on getting better grades rather than on deeper understanding.”

The degree to which learners are able to regulate their own learning also appears to foster pupils’ interest and to promote focus on the intrinsic features of their work (15). Pupils who have some control over their work by being given choice and by being encouraged to evaluate their own work are more likely to value the learning itself rather than to focus only on whether or not it is correct.”

The research shows that the negative impact of tests can be reduced by ceasing to focus teaching on test content. It can also be reduced by ending the practice of ‘training’ pupils in how to pass the tests and by preventing the use of class time for repeated practice tests. Pupils should not be faced with tests in which they are unlikely to experience success.”

The ARG says do more of this…

q    Provide choice and help pupils to take responsibility for their learning.

q    Discuss with pupils the purpose of their learning and provide feedback that will help the learning process.

q    Encourage pupils to judge their work by how much they have learned and by the progress they have made.

q    Help pupils to understand the criteria by which their learning is assessed and to assess their own work.

q    Develop pupils’

understanding of the goals of their work in terms of what they are learning; provide feedback to pupils in relation to these goals.

q    Help pupils to understand where they are in relation to learning goals and how to make further progress.

q    Give feedback that enables pupils to know the next steps and how to succeed in taking them. Encourage pupils to value effort and a wide range of attainments.

q    Encourage collaboration among pupils and a positive view of each others’ attainments.

and do less of this …

q    Define the curriculum in terms of what is in the tests to the detriment of what is not tested.

q    Give frequent drill and practice for test taking. Teach how to answer specific test questions. Allow pupils to judge their work in terms of scores or grades.

q    Allow test anxiety to impair some pupils’ performance (particularly girls and lower performing pupils). Use tests and assessment to tell students where they are in relation to others.

q    Give feedback relating to pupils’ capabilities, implying a fixed view of each pupil’s potential.

q    Compare pupils’ grades and allow pupils to compare grades, giving status on the basis of test achievement only.

q    Emphasise competition for marks or grades among pupils.

For a constructive alternative to testing take a look at the ARGs pamphlet  Assessment for Learning:Beyond the Black Box.

There’s lots more at The Assessment Reform Group.

And Alfie Kohn on testing is an inspiring read.

You can get my grading rubrics and some further thoughts at The PiFactory assessment page.


Entry filed under: Assessment + Grading, Testing, Thoughts from the classroom, What's on the PiFactory blog.... Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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