Tests Aren’t Objective. They are Just Easy to Grade.

I get why you give tests. Trust me, I do. You have a family, a social life, and other obligations that need attention, and tests - let’s just be honest - are really easy to mark. I marked a mid-term exam today for my grade 12 social science course and it took me around an hour and a half. This is way easier than the effort required to properly assess an essay. In fact, ease of grading is the only honest defense I’ve ever heard of bothering with frequent (read unit-based) testing. 

This begs the question: how do tests benefit students? The answer is, they don’t. They aren’t meaningful exercises that enhance understanding. Doing more tests has not been shown to increase your ability to do well on tests. In short, they show some detail on where students are with the course content, but little regarding how well they understand it. At best, the act of studying for the test may improve retention and memory, but this isn’t a function of the test itself.

However, educators don’t have to spend much time defending their preference for testing. It is, by and large, an accepted right of passage in the education system. This is in spite of the fact that the research on testing shows only limited benefits and numerous potential pitfalls. Multiple choice tests can actually generate a tendency for students to internalize incorrect answers. Other studies have shown significant harm to students’ willingness to engage with new material and only exacerbate low performance as students decide that they are “a 60% student”. Furthermore, “the real world” has very few tests. What it has is a large number of projects and a few certification exams related to acquiring credentials. This is why, if I may be so blunt, you need to stop testing.

Keep your exam, by all means. It serves an appropriate socializing function that, while it will never improve accuracy through practice, at least helps students aclimate themselves to the reality of exams and practice their studying skills. This reflects and honours reality in important ways.

Tests, on the other hand, serve little educational purpose, especially as a unit capstone exercise. I certainly think tests can be useful as an assessment for learning - a quick snapshot showing what you, as the educator, need to revisit or spend more time on. They don’t, however, capture much in the way of student learning.

Tests are often rudimentary recall activities. Some overly-optimistic educators talk of designing tests with "rich questions.” To be blunt, this is an absurdity. A question is only as rich as the answers it solicits. The time constraints of testing mitigates against rich answers, regardless of the question. Turn that "rich question" into a rich assignment instead with multiple parts that brings together the content from the unit and forces students to apply it or test it in a meaningful context.

My students don’t write tests. My grade tens write papers on the meaning of gender identity at different times in Canada. My grade twelves analyze current events from a particular disciplinary perspective that asks them to decontextualize and recontextualize their learning within the world they live in. They write exams and score at grade level, or above because they understand the disciplinary logic and conventions they are working with. Even if they haven’t memorized specific content, many can use their deeper understanding to solve the problem in front of them come exam season. 

I know it is hard, but do your students a favour: stop giving them tests as an assessment of learning. If you must test, use it instead as an assessment for learning - a diagnostic to show you where you need to spend some additional time reviewing concepts.

© Braden Hutchinson 2014