October 17th, 2011

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Testing, testing, anyone there?

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Tests in school settings have existed since schools have existed. Whatever the definition of school that you choose, it has tests. How else could a teacher figure out if the student learned the material that had been presented?

One would think that it’s a pretty simple proposition: present a concept, spend some time exploring it, then test the students understanding of the concept. When the Eduskeptic was in the Army, the tests were exactly that. Proof of learning was getting through a course in one piece, or hitting the target in the correct spot. Failure to learn could be pretty unpleasant.

The Army didn’t invent this structure. It’s been around since dirt first appeared on the planet. The testing procedure is not only related to the content that has been taught, it is cumulative. One concept builds on another. Babies crawl, then totter about, then walk, and then run.

There has been controversy about testing from early on as well. Socrates was vehemently opposed to the written word. He thought that reasoned debate was a far better test of ones skills and learning.

All of this is to say that the current hubbub about testing is nothing new. Not much in education is. The difference today seems to be the consequences of not meeting the required norms of the testing regime. The requirements were put together by politicians, which doesn’t make the unintended consequences all that surprising.

One of the biggest complaints from actual teachers in actual classrooms is the need to teach to the test, almost to the exclusion of everything else. To be fair, the term “teaching to the test” isn’t very illustrative. Teachers have always taught to the test. How could it not be? Present information, test on the information presented.

It’s the loss of the other stuff that is frustrating. Learning to regurgitate factoids doesn’t actually do much toward educating anyone. Robots can be programmed to do that.

It’s the person who is doing the programming of the robot who is critical. That person must have critical thinking skills. The ability to branch out and explore quite a few “what if’s” and accept a non-working solution as a step on the road to success is very important.

That’s the major draw back of the current testing drama. Without the ability to take a leap out into the unknown with the information that has been presented, it’s not education. It’s robotic regurgitation. Factoids have limited usefulness.

What is needed is a much more rounded, still vigorous, testing mechanism. It just can’t be so simplistic that only a scantron is used to evaluate what children have learned in school. Education, and children, are much more complicated than that.

The people who are most qualified to put such a system together are, oddly enough, teachers. Newbies, mid-career, end of career, and retired teachers and administrators, along with some of the university profs who are very good at research. Leaving such a thing to the political establishment is, to put it mildly, insane.

Because of the amount of money involved though, it is unlikely that anyone will put together a group of educators any time soon. In the meantime, the system will probably continue waste energy with the current untenable situation.

As always, assume nothing, verify everything.