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David Petrie - To test or not to test?
As I write this, a group of young people is sitting before me, heads bent towards their desks. Some are already rubbing their heads, there is some pen chewing going on and one young man is staring out of the window. They are all doing a test. Actually, they’re all doing a practice exam – it’s not even a real test, it’s a test to see if they’re ready to do the real test.
For many people, this is a symptom of a very sick education system, where testing has become the focus and all our educational energy is taken up with covering the content of the test, developing test taking strategies and preparing the students for their exams. Where, in all that, is the education of the individual?
There are lots of different reasons to test. You can test to see which class a student should join (placement), or where they need help to improve (diagnostic), how much of a syllabus or curriculum they know (achievement), whether they have improved in an area (progress) or more generally – measuring a student’s wider ability (proficiency). All of these kinds of tests share three key aspects:
- Informative: they tell us something about the student that we didn’t know before, or that the student didn’t know about themselves.
- Objective: theoretically at least, everyone is judged by the same criteria.
- External validation: it’s not just us saying it.
Now I can tell you lots of things about my students. I can tell you that they’re quite a lively group, that the girls all love One Direction and the boys all hate Justin Bieber. I can tell you that they are imaginative, creative, intelligent people. Some of them are better communicators, some are more introspective, some have a great time in class and some of them would rather not be there at all! I can also tell you that some of them are better than others at English. But I can only tell you who is better at what because I test. The results of that testing tells me what I need to focus on to help all the students achieve their goals. It gives me the evidence I need to adapt the curriculum and informs the decisions I make about lesson objectives and classroom content.
Except, of course, when my objectively prepared test fails to meet the criteria of the students. It’s a bit like buying clothes: for some students the clothes will be too big, for some they will be too small and for some the style will just be completely wrong. I cannot think of a way round this. Much gets written expressing concern about standardised testing and it often appears to be used as a tool of government to bludgeon schools, educators and students into submission – after all where students are so focused on passing their tests they have little time left to develop critical thinking skills or to apply critical thinking to the world around them. Nonetheless, we seem to live in a world where it is necessary to measure ourselves against each other – to determine our worth to prospective employers by comparing, for example, our mathematical abilities in the context of grades and examination results. In this context, is it not fair to one and all that the test be the same test for all candidates?
Similarly, tests provide evidence for the claims that we make for ourselves. When I seek medical treatment I want to be sure that my doctor knows what they are talking about – education and qualifications do not necessarily make a doctor a “good” doctor, but they do determine a minimum standard that needs to be achieved and this is, I think, better than the alternative. This respectability of this evidence though, rests upon the reputation of the organisation administering the test and awarding the results. A candidate walking into a job interview with a certificate awarding B2 level competence from “Frank’s Language School and Coffee House” will have their ability more seriously questioned than the candidate with a TOEFL certificate from ETS or a FCE certificate from Cambridge ESOL.
The main problem with tests is the disproportionate influence they have on everything that goes on around them – they are like the black hole at the heart of the educational galaxy, sucking everything and everyone inexorably towards them. Some of the factors that “washback” and “impact” studies (research that examines either the influence of a test on events that precede the test; or the wider consequences of a test respectively) have identified as being influenced by tests are:
- Government education policy
- Curriculum and syllabus design
- Lesson planning and content
- Teaching practice
- Course book selection
- Course book design & content
- Teacher education & development
- Student goals
- Student expectations
- Parents’ goals & expectations
… and this is not an exhaustive list!
Tests should be an aid to teaching and learning, not a goal in and of themselves. As things stand at the moment, my concern is that the majority of tests simply don’t function in the way that they should. They don’t tell us much about the learners’ needs, wants or abilities – they only tell us how good the learner is at reproducing the information required by the test. Maybe the focus of testing is wrong. Maybe instead of telling us whether students have passed or failed at something, they should instead tell us where students excel in different areas. In other words performance should be subject to a more nuanced analysis and not simply allocated to a general band.
But back to the group I was invigilating at the start. They finished their tests and for the most part they all seemed happy about what they’d done. Possibly, they said, one or two parts may have tripped them up a bit, two students were frustrated at not remembering how many “L”s in “additionally”, but overall they all felt positive about the experience and what they had done. Unfortunately, 80% of them failed. Ah well – better luck next time.