Testing, testing

Frequent tests are no big deal for young children in China, writes Elizabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times. Her children felt challenged, not stressed, by tests when they were in elementary school at the International School of Beijing.

No Child Left Behind required end-of-the year tests to hold schools accountable for students’ achievement. Race to the Top encourages a stream of “formative” tests to help students and their teachers track their progress throughout the year.

Some education experts hail the change as a step forward from the ideological dark ages. “Research has long shown that more frequent testing is beneficial to kids, but educators have resisted this finding,” said Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tests should be age appropriate and should not determine a student’s future based on performance on a single day, like China’s high-stakes, high-stress university entrance exams.

But Professor Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better,” he said. “Kids don’t get self-esteem by people just telling them they are wonderful.”

In Beijing, her children struggled in some subjects and grades.

But let’s face it, life is filled with all kinds of tests — some you ace and some you flunk — so at some point you have to get used to it.

. . . When testing is commonplace and the teachers are supportive — as my children’s were, for the most part — the tests felt like so many puzzles; not so much a judgment on your being, but an interesting challenge. It is a testament to the International School of Beijing — or to the malleability of childhood memory — that Andrew now says he did not realize that he was being tested.

When the family moved back to New York City, her children, then 9 and 11, “started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical.”  They missed the feedback.

Primed with Beijing test-taking experience, they each soon tested into New York City’s academic public schools — where they have had tests aplenty and (probably not surprisingly) a high proportion of Asian classmates.

Classroom tests are very different from high-stakes, end-of-the year testing, responds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge blog.

Likewise there is a difference between studying and mastering a body of material for, say, a biology or geometry test, and a state reading test.  There is no body of knowledge to study with a reading test.  Test-taking skills and reading strategies that might provide a short-term boost are deleterious in the long run.  Countless hours of test prep and strategy sessions are educationally unproductive.  And it would be naive in the extreme to suggest high-stakes tests are not materially different than a workaday math quiz in the anxiety they produce.

Virtually all teachers assess students, formally and informally, all the time, Pondiscio writes. Many children enjoy the competition of things like “mad minute” math drills.  Even for those who don’t, “classroom tests focus the mind and efforts of students to master material.”

Unfortunately, none of these things are true of high stakes reading and math tests. They don’t drive instruction because months go by before you get the results. No bragging rights or competitive juices are fired by them. And reading tests are impossible to study for  since they are constructed on a mistaken notion of reading as a transferable skill.  It’s possible to be a firm believer in testing – even high stakes testing – yet have misgivings about their impact on education.

Asians think test scores reflect effort, while Americans believe scores show ability, notes Heidi Grant Halvorson on Psychology Today.

If we want our children to see tests as informative and challenging, we need to emphasize the importance of effort, persistence, and strategy use over ability. We need to explain to them how tests can help them see what they need to improve, and express confidence that they will improve if they don’t give up.

The anti-testing ethos is expressed in a new movie, Race to Nowhere, which argues students are under too much pressure to perform.

About Joanne


  1. Good coverage Joanne.

    I hope we educators come to understand that every question a teacher asks a student is a test. Each and every task a student performs is a test. “Jimmy, where is your nose?” “Juanita, is Paul’s solution of that quadratic equation accurate?” “Blue Team, can you build a bridge that will support this load traversing that gap?”

    Keeping data about the results of the tests that we routinely administer as learning forms, as we ask questions and direct students to perform tasks, would probably help us understand how to help students do well on those lower-frequency tests many educators seem to loath.

    Onward formative measurers!


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