Test Crazy

“American schools are going test-crazy,” writes the New York Times education editor, Edward B. Fiske.

He elaborates: “The scores emerging from those sheets full of X’s and penciled-in circles are increasingly being used to promote and hold back students, hire and fire teachers, award diplomas, evaluate curriculums, and dole out money to schools and colleges Teachers complain they are under mounting pressure to ‘teach to the test’–shape the curriculum so students test well. According to school administrators, scores are being used more as political weapons by politicians than as barometers of

learning.” Multiple-choice, standardized tests are far more administratively convenient for machine-scoring than they are for helping students. They are a menace and a specialized type of fraud. By assuming a correct answer, they obviate critical or innovative thinking. They put an emphasis on speed rather than profundity. They do a poor job of testing what the student knows. They do not even do very well at predicting college student performance, compared to what high school grades can forecast.

Furthermore, psychologists are now producing research which tells us what common observation has taught humans for decades–that these tests have little to do with the likelihood of success or failure in life’s work. Multiple-choice, standardized tests do not test, nor do they purport to test, the student’s judgment, experience, creativity, imagination, idealism, determination or stamina.

Tests, which measure practical intelligence or what psychology professor, Seymour Epstein, calls “Constructive thinking”-the ability to respond effectively to various situations in life-can predict success far better than the multiple-choice tests do. The ability to persuade, the quality of self-confidence, the trait of resiliency in handling problems, the tendency to seek concrete and varied information, the desire to confront people directly when problems arise, an ability to motivate, mobilize and involve subordinates in challenging work, a refusal to procrastinate–these are some elements of practical intelligence.

Another educational movement called “critical-thinking” is busy also rediscovering and refining old knowledge. The thesis of these educational scholars is that schools should teach thinking about the issues raised by the information the students are presumably absorbing.

Dr. Heidi Jacobs, a professor at Columbia University, says: “It’s not just the ability to remember things and feed them back on tests that determines how well you’re going to do in life. It’s the ability to solve problems and reflect and to, in fact, think critically.” Yet, she adds, four out of five questions in class are designed simply to have students recall information.

States have heeded this critical-thinking movement and have retrained teachers and revised curriculums as a result. Three years ago, the California State University system started requiring its one million students to take a course in thinking critically, reports the New York Times.

Other educators are touting the ancient belief that writing

improves thinking and learning and, therefore, students ought to

write more.

If all these sensible trends are underway, why is the multiple-choice test business booming from kindergarten through elementary school, high school, college, graduate school and pre-licensing examinations for dozens of trades and professions?

If these multiple-choice tests have little predictive value for future academic performance, except future multiple-choice tests, and if they have little or nothing to do with success in life, why is this type of testing epidemic continuing?

Because, for one thing, these tests have become part of the measurement of schools, school districts, and state school systems with one another. Politician’s campaign for election or re-election pointing to the rise or fall of average test scores as reflective of educational achievement. In short, while the best educational thinking for the students is arguing away from this kind of testing, the pressures for measurement, however superficial, have taken over and made these tests more entrenched than ever.

When we released our report on the Educational Testing Service and its tests in 1980, we believed that the critique of these tests, facilitated by state truth-in-testing laws (such as in New York state) would reduce the number of colleges heavily weighing or requiring such tests as pre-requisites to considering students for admission. This in fact, is beginning to happen.

What we did not contemplate is how deeply embedded the fetish for numerical comparisons would become in that sprawling world known as the politics of education. In the meantime, woe the poor student!

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