By Janis McMath, Editor-in-Chief
It is ignorant to act like information retention is not an essential part of many fields of study.
Exams, quizzes, and tests certainly have a poor reputation for many people. With terms like “test anxiety” becoming more popularized, it’s unsurprising that some students feel strongly repulsed by this educational tool. And while there will always be valid criticisms of every single educational tool ever created, do tests deserve the distaste that is often directed towards them?
There is no single correct answer to the question of how valid tests are as a pedagogical asset; tests come in many different shapes and sizes so each individual test must be considered in determining effectiveness. Some exams certainly offer little educational value—and often stifle learning—and such an argument is often made for standardized tests. It’s no secret that many teachers have gripes with the system that is commonly critiqued for hampering an educator’s sense of agency in their classroom. Even though their standardized aspect allows them to be an effective tool in comparing the scores of students all across the country, there are many arguments that point to their rigid structure as one that prevents educators from teaching a meaningful personalized curriculum.
The paper, “Teaching to the Test: A Controversial Issue in Quantitative Measurement,” mentions that in the US the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act changed the tone of standardized testing. Before, the score from these tests held little weight—after the NCLB Act, however, new rules were set. Harsh standards of proficiency were put into place along with similarly harsh punishments; schools that did not meet the standards had funds taken away, federal sanctions put into place, and sometimes, even totally restructured. These consequences inevitably led to teachers “teaching to the test,” forcing classrooms to neglect other subjects like gym, music, the arts—and even critical thinking. Additional negatives include a higher likelihood of cheating due to the high stakes of these exams, and a marked lack of student engagement and interest in the classroom.
So, it cannot be denied that there are some ineffective forms of testing, but this does not warrant the blanket hatred. Testing has been proven time and time again as one of the most efficient pedagogical tools with regard to information retention. A commonly observed outcome of testing is improved retention of knowledge—this is called the “testing effect.” In comparison to “repeated studying” (which just refers to students reading their notes), testing consistently proves to create more long-term memories.
Interestingly, the majority of students in the study “Examining the Testing Effect with Open- and Closed-Book Tests” incorrectly predicted that they would do just as well (if not better) with remembering class knowledge if they simply studied it instead of actually getting tested on it. It is proposed that the reason students assumed such an outcome is because they find testing unpleasant, and reading notes is the most comfortable form of gaining knowledge; so their natural bias made them insist that study alone would be enough. The paper “Using Testing as a Learning Tool” explains that the testing effect is proposed to occur because of a principle that states that difficulty aids in the long-term memorization of learned facts.
In response to all of these studies, some will argue that education is not only about retaining information—and that testing is in line with Paulo Freire’s “banking model of education” (in which students are simply vessels to be filled with knowledge that can be regurgitated). The banking model argument does bring up an extremely valid point: any education that does not employ a wide range of pedagogical tools is a shallow one. A good teacher will work with a wide array of educational goals for their diverse students. It is ignorant, however, to act like information retention is not an essential part of many fields of study. A surgeon who doesn’t know the proper procedures is of little good to anyone.
There is always room for improvement in education. Teachers should be striving to give their students the best education they can; achieving that includes constantly re-evaluating the effectiveness of educational tools used. However, aiming to scrap testing entirely is utterly misguided. Tests could instead use some modifications in avoiding common issues to ensure that they are as meaningful a teaching tool as possible.