So, we should teach to the test?



In an exasperating article on the op-ed page of The New York Times last week, science writer Benedict Carey argues for the benefit of testing, conflating all types from yearly standardized tests to weekly quizzes and ignoring the indisputable fact that all tests are regressive (they test what is known, somethings at the expense of what might be discovered) and inherently stifling of creativity. He writes, without exploring the implications of his statement:

Testing in all its permutations, subtle and otherwise, convinces the brain that the knowledge is useful, and important.

It convinces the brain that the received knowledge is important, narrowing the field of curiosity to that which has already been selected.

That quote comes at the end of the article. It starts this way:

PROTESTS are flaring up in pockets of the country against the proliferation of standardized tests. For many parents and teachers, school has become little more than a series of workout sessions for the assessment du jour.

And that is exactly backward, research shows. Tests should work for the student, not the other way around.

The implication is that concern about standardized testing is wrong and that Carey is going to show us why. Relying on confusion over the various types of assessment (for a wide range of purposes) included under the word “testing,” Carey proceeds to execute something of a bait-and-switch. Instead of continuing to talk about the standardized tests mentioned in his opening, he moves to a discussion of frequent quizzing in class, as if this useful tool can provide justification for uniform yearly examinations.

He’s right about quizzes. They are helpful. Even more than Carey argues, for they provide immediate feedback to teachers, allowing them to adjust strategies for individual students and for classes as a whole quickly. The quizzes–like any tests given during the term–are tools for the teacher, means of continual assessment that improve student learning. On the other hand, if teachers see the results of standardized tests, they see them after their students have moved on to other classes. They are of absolutely no use in developing the means for assisting the learning of that particular cohort of students.

When testing is conceived of as a tool for teachers and as simply one of many assessment possibilities (it should never be the singular means for determining if students should move on), it is an effective and important part of education. When it becomes, as the new standardized-testing regimes of the likes of the Common Core State Standards threaten to be, the single bar for both student advancement and teacher retention, it becomes something quite different. It is against this sort of testing that teachers and parents are protesting–not the tests that teachers develop as part of the pedagogical process.

Yes, we should teach to the test, at least in part. But we should not be teaching to an imposed assessment tool that the local teacher has not developed.