Focus On: Is Testing Even Useful?

In a recent post, I listed a number of ways that I tried to reduce stress in my students as they prepared for a unit-ending test. For this class (and for all of my classes), I have developed a test policy in which they can re-write a test as many times as they need until they pass and I will take the better of those marks. Plus, this test occurred after a three week unit in which I included a number of instructional strategies, including Foldables, tiering, the Traffic Light system, formative assessment through  daily ongoing feedback to which I responded, Thumbs Up Thumbs Down, community building, short mini-lectures, and cooperative learning.

I am somewhat disappointed to report that 8 out 21 students or 38% of the class failed the test, which was a combination of Knowledge and Comprehension questions, such as fill in the blanks and then a longer answer section that asked them to apply their knowledge to an article they had not seen before and to provide two short answers with examples, explanations and some analysis. In addition, 2 of the students barely passed, while 10 achieved 65% to 85%.

I suppose my disappointment stems partly from my feelings that I implemented a number of research-based strategies that promote student learning, and I also strove very hard to implement responsive teaching based on a culture of ongoing feedback and communication between myself and the students, where I responded to comprehension problems as they arose.

I recently read the following quotation from Carol Ann Tomlinson`s book Differentiation and The Brain ,

Timed tests… produce stress for many students. Their brains often get so preoccupied with the time limits that their cortisol levels begin to interfere with the simple recall of how, for example, to organize a persuasive piece of writing.  The more we learn about the brain, the more we question the benefit of timed tests in everyday classroom assessments. While no one proposes giving students unlimited time for an assessment, the notion that one must produce an answer quickly runs counter to our understanding of how our memory systems are activated and respond in different individuals…

If the purpose of assessment is to determine what the student knows, where is the logic in messing up an already delayed retrieval process by pumping cortisol in the system to add further interference?”

My question, therefore, is “Is testing in a classroom useful?” I ask this because, the poor results notwithstanding, all of the students wrote sub-par answers in that setting compared with what they I have observed in class. So, why am I subjecting them to a timed test?

Spelling Clip Art

To be specific, many of the answers I saw contained numerous spelling mistakes, incorrect grammar, choppy and even nonsensical sentences, and vague, ineffectual explanations. So, their answers are not as good as they could be, as good as I have seen; I then  wonder, should I mark with the same rigor and expectation as when they have had sufficient stress-free time to write an answer? Or do I mark with a modicum of compassion and latitude? If so, that means that my professional judgment is coming into play, but to what end?  If I have to extend a ‘helping hand’ during their culminating evaluation, what does that say about the culminating evaluation?

And what do these timed tests teach the students? That teachers and the education system are out to trip them up? That teachers are trying to say, “Gotcha! I’m the cleverest person in the room!” as Carol Ann Tomlinson puts it? That only the ‘good students’ can second guess the teacher and those who cannot detect some form of pattern deserve to be tripped and deserve to fail?

Carol Ann Tomlinson goes on to say,

“Rather than see assessment as a tool for judgment, (teachers) should regard it as an opportunity for reflection…”

She goes on to quote Wiggins:

“The real goal of classroom assessment is to improve student learning, not merely to audit it.”

And further:

“…the rightful role of assessment is to help students succeed. Assessment should not be used to categorize students, but to push their learning forward.”

But even thinking about getting rid of timed tests in the classroom feels… sacrilegious, as though I am thumbing my nose at sacred teaching tradition.

So what do I do? Deeper into the rabbit hole I go…

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