Test-taking at school

David Guterson, a high school teacher, and a homeschooling father of four, questions the validity of standard test-taking in school, which is meant to measure the quantity and quality of a student’s learning during a certain period of time. He writes:

I point to the results of an informal experiment I have conducted five time in a ten-year teaching career. In this experiment I give a test on Friday, an ordinary objective test (true-false, matching, fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice) preceded by a Thursday review session and a week full of reminders that this test is on Friday, don’t forget to reread this or that, to study these notes, to review this handout, to get plenty of rest, to see me if there are questions; I am furthermore explicit all week long about both the form of the test and its subject matter. In short I prepare them to meet the test in the time-honored tradition of high-school teachers.

Friday evenings I take their completed tests home. Over the weekend I grade them. On Monday, with no prior warning of any sort, I give them the same test and ask them to take it again. Monday evening I grade those, staple them to the Friday exam, and hand both back to students.

None–no one–has ever received an equal or higher grade on the test administered on Monday. Most in fact, receive a considerably lower grade, missing, often, twice as many questions on Monday as they missed on Friday.

As I had suspected.🙂 Now, testing the ability to take tests has some value. It’s some indication of the willingness of a person to study and prepare. It’s some measure of short term memory, though not, obviously, long term memory. Guterson’s point is that learning is a mysterious process, difficult, if not impossible, to measure. And yet homeschoolers repeatedly test higher on these tests than children attending traditional school.

3 thoughts on “Test-taking at school

  1. Perhaps I will try this experiment with my students this semester. I read a recent NY Times story that suggested that low-stakes quizzes actually helps students retain information better. So, with all the conflicting information, it’s hard for educators to know what to do.

  2. This problem is more pronounced in Asian (essentially British style) school systems, where rote memorization and exam scores take such precedence over fostering creative thinking and drawing out the specific talents of each individual. This has sadly stifled entrepreneurial spirit in India especially.

  3. Oh hey! Guterson taught at my high school. Back in my day (I graduated in ’93, the year his homeschooling book came out — and two years before Snow Falling on Cedars) he wasn’t known as a popular teacher. Perhaps because he liked to drop pop quizzes on Mondays? HA!

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