Brilliant: The Science of Smart

In Defense of School Testing

While the anti-testing movement gains steam, let's not deprive our children of a valuable tool for learning

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The school year is winding down, but one faction within the world of education is ratcheting up: the anti-testing movement. More parents are pulling their kids out of end-of-year math and literacy assessments. More teachers and administrators are speaking up against testing — like the group of school district superintendents in Georgia who are calling on the state legislature to reconsider its test-based accountability system. And a national resolution condemning testing has now attracted the endorsements of more than 300 organizations and 8,500 individuals. Standardized testing is “an inadequate and often unreliable measure of both student learning and educator effectiveness,” the resolution reads in part, and “the over-reliance on high-stakes standardized testing in state and federal accountability programs is undermining educational quality and equity in U.S. public schools.”

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Many of these complaints have merit: tests can warp the learning process and cause students enormous anxiety. But such concerns are mainly about “high-stakes” testing, in which a student’s achievement is judged, and a school’s status and funding are determined, by just a few big-deal tests. What we need, instead, is a regime of no-stakes testing. Entirely apart from their assessment function, tests are an enormously effective way to improve understanding and recall. By using the test as a learning tool instead of an evaluation instrument, we could help students avoid the perils of testing while garnering all its benefits.

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What are those benefits? Decades of research on the “testing effect” have documented that calling up a fact or a concept from memory actually helps us remember it better the next time. Foreign language learners who tested themselves on vocabulary words remembered 80 percent of the words they studied, according to one experiment, while learners who used other study methods remembered only about a third of them. Likewise, students learning from a science textbook who were queried about what they read retained about 50 percent more of the information than students who studied in other ways.

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No-stakes testing — in which scores aren’t counted or even calculated — is now being successfully implemented in real-life school settings. Through a collaboration with researcher Henry Roediger and his colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis, teachers at nearby Columbia Middle School have incorporated what psychologists call “retrieval practice” into seventh- and eighth-grade science and social studies courses. At the end of each class, students are given a quiz on what they just learned. The quiz is not graded; it’s intended solely to promote retention. This simple exercise has dramatically improved students’ recall of the material.

Although we often conceive of memory as something like a storage tank, and a test as a kind of dipstick that measures how much information is inside, that’s not actually how the brain works. Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting — so that testing doesn’t just measure what students know, it changes what they know. Reading over material to be learned, taking notes, even engaging in teacher-favored techniques like concept-mapping: none of these practices are as effective as testing at improving retention.

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Opponents of high-stakes testing want to replace the current regime with — in the words of the national resolution — “a system based on multiple forms of assessment which does not require extensive standardized testing, more accurately reflects the broad range of student learning, and is used to support students and improve schools.” In this vision, students would be judged, say, on a portfolio of the work they produced over the course of the semester. That seems a little pie-in-the-sky, but more power to them. More importantly, we should also be implementing exams that serve a different purpose: tests that have no stakes at all, other than helping students learn.

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