Monday, August 27, 2012

Testing Is Bad

My father is a high school science teacher in the US.  Today he was feeling a bit overwhelmed by work, so I helped him grade tests from Bio 1, an introductory biology course for kids in their 9th or 10th years.  It’s early in the course, so they haven’t moved on yet from attempts to make sure everyone’s familiar with very basic and central notions that they should have learned in earlier years but likely didn’t.  I only graded fill-in-the-blank and definition type questions—no essays or short answers that would require significant interpretation.  I’ve never met the kids in the class, and since I only graded page two of the tests I didn’t even see their names.  Neither is this a common occurrence: I believe I’ve helped Dad with grading one other time in my whole life.  Just in case some readers wanted those disclaimers.  Anyway.

It was an enlightening experience.  It was very clear that the vast majority of the students were far more focused on exploiting the system during class and homework than on understanding the material at hand.  They were trying to learn what they needed to pass the test, and didn't feel at all that the test is merely evidence of what they've so far understood or failed to understand.  Their whole purpose as students is to pass the test.  

This is how I ended up grading one test on which the student defined "element" as "part of an atom which makes up an element".  I thought for a long time about what would have to happen in a child’s head for him to give an answer like this on a test.  When I was in high school myself, I never thought very hard about the minds of other students, and assumed people did poorly in school because they are stupid and lazy.  But now, I see that something else is going on here, something caused not by the stupidity or laziness of individual students but by a grave systemic flaw in US education.

There are two correct answers in this context to "define element".  The first is something along the lines of, "something without parts" (Dad often teaches via the history of science, so this would come from the ancient Greek notion), and the second is, "a substance made up entirely of one kind of atom".  I took Dad’s intro chemistry class way back when, and I remember his wording.

Here is the real problem.  It is threefold.  First, the students don't understand the goal of their lessons—they don’t know how to know what the teacher wants them to understand.  Second, they don’t know how to assess the content and level of their current understanding—they don't know how to know what they don't understand.  These combine to create the third part of the problem: they cannot identify the gap between what they don’t know and what they’re meant to know, so they can’t focus their academic efforts on closing it.  

As it stands, high school students know what tests tend to look like and how to streamline the process of passing them.  They are rewarded for good performance and punished for poor performance, and no one has ever tried to explain to them the internal mechanisms of learning beyond that.  The reason they run into such huge problems with Dad's classes in particular is that his tests require a great deal more understanding as a prerequisite for good performance than do the tests they’ve encountered previously.  

The kind of test you write if you don’t want to spend much time grading—that is, understanding the minds of individual students—is the same kind of test you pass by knowing how to take tests.  An expert at test taking can pass a test over very difficult material without actually understanding the material provided the test is written in a way that allows them to exercise their expertise.  This is how I got a B+ on a college level psychology final last year without ever going to class or studying.  There were many things on that test whose answers I didn't really know, and sometimes I didn’t fully comprehend the question itself, but I could deduce what would be counted as correct in most cases because I know how to take tests.  Multiple choice, for instance, hardly ever requires understanding in most contexts.  It only requires memorization of associated sets of terms.  It’s a skillset that takes a long time to develop, but nine or ten years is plenty long.

So the poor kid did exactly what he’d been conditioned over the course of a decade to do.  He threw together "part", "made up", "atom", and "element" into a grammatically well-formed sentence, and didn’t even notice that it was totally nonsensical.  It didn't occur to him to actually try to understand what "element" means.  

And why would he?  Imagine that you aren’t simply trying to be efficient so you can spend your time on other things that are more obviously worthwhile, which is itself understandable.  Imagine that experience has shown that you aren’t smart enough to understand complicated things even when you try.  This is a pet theory you pulled together after failing tests repeatedly early on.  It makes a lot of sense to spend what cognitive resources you know you do have on exploiting the rules of the system, getting by without anyone suspecting that you’re failing to learn (including yourself) and without being punished for your failure.  Your teachers believe that a good grade means you’ve learned, and you believe your teachers.  Because you’ve been doing this for as long as you can remember, you don’t even recognize anymore that there’s another way.  

This kid gave an answer that evidenced an almost total lack of understanding of anything that had happened in his biology class up to that point, but it's not because he’s dumb, and it's not because he isn't trying to succeed.  He definitely would have had to have studied to give that particular answer.  He's failing to learn because tests have taught him not to learn.

What if instead of doling out rewards and punishments in the forms of grades for being able to answer correctly on tests, we taught kids how to assess their own understanding?  What if we taught them that the first priority is to figure out what it is the teacher wants you to understand, the second is to figure out in what way and to what extent you currently understand it, and finally that the entire purpose of all of this class time and work and testing is to figure out how to close the gap between those two things?  There's no way anyone would be content with a nonsensical answer.  They’d have written what they did understand about the meaning of "element".

A few students seem to have done something similar: they defined element as something like, "all the things on the periodic table".  This is what I'd expect from kids who didn't know how to know what they were meant to understand, but did know what they understood.  They knew that they knew that the things on the periodic table are called "elements".  They knew that they knew what a definition is.  They failed to give a correct definition because they didn't know what they were meant to understand.

Here is an answer I would expect from someone who knows how to know what he's meant to understand, knows how to know what he currently understands, but hasn't quite completed the process of closing the gap.  "An element is a very tiny thing that builds bigger things and takes part in chemical reactions."  A kid who answered this way would have genuinely been learning about atoms, but wouldn't have finished refining his notion: he'd have yet to precisify his understanding enough to distinguish between elements and molecules.  

Not a single student gave this kind of answer.  In fact, I don't think anyone gave this kind of answer to any of the questions.  This suggests that even the kids who are getting the answers right probably don't actually understand the things the understanding of which the test is meant to assess.

People like me, people who love learning so much that they aspire to be professional academics, learn in spite of tests.  In most cases, we grew up believing ourselves to be so much smarter than everyone around us that we were always confident that if someone else was meant to understand, we sure as hell were going to understand as well.  We had confidence in our ability to learn better and faster than required, expected, or maybe imagined.  When faced with the prospect of a test that presented any sort of challenge, we stepped up our efforts, because we knew it would pay off.  By contrast, many students have little confidence not because of low ability but because of learned helplessness.  We did learn to exploit the system because often we just weren't interested in the material, but we never had to deal with a feeling of doubt about our abilities or intellectual worth. 

I think that not only have most people never been taught to apply what intelligence they possess, but they've been taught specifically to behave less intelligently than they would if left to their own devices.  They've thrown in the towel, they're flying blind, and the best they can do is to try to exploit the system, and to pray.

For a boatload of unequivocal empirical evidence that conventional testing is harmful, checkout this ginormous meta-study by Paul Black and Dylan William.  If you’re convinced and want to know what to do about it, I suggest reading up on formative assessment, a good overview of which by D. Sadler can be found here.

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