Thursday, May 10, 2007

Testing, Testing

I’m proctoring a test for my colleague in astronomy; watching students work through a multiple-choice examination is an unusual experience for me. In the dozen or so years I’ve taught, I’ve never given a “bubble-sheet” exam; the only class I’ve ever used in-class tests in has been Logic and even there, only sporadically.

It’s not just that I’m too lazy to write multiple-choice examinations, although that’s probably part of it.

Philosophically, I remain somewhat opposed to the whole institution of testing. It’s not obvious to me that most tests do anything more that test a student’s ability to take tests.

Studying for tests is another matter; I think learning takes place when students prepare for exams, but not really when they take them. Perhaps if we could figure out a way to make them study without forcing them through the test-taking exercise itself.

Paolo Friere calls this the “banking model” of education. As teachers, we make deposits of information into students’ heads and then withdraw that knowledge at a later date. Unfortunately for students, they never get anything of much value from their savings and expenditures.

My animosity about testing is somewhat unexpected. I, myself, was a pretty good test-taker, typically doing quite well on standardized exams. My SAT and GRE scores, for instance, were pretty respectable, placing me in the upper percentile (especially in the verbal sections) of all who took them. So, by rights, I should be a powerful advocate for the institution of testing, considering them a true gauge of people’s abilities.

Part of my opposition is informed by having an experience like this, watching students as they page through their mid-terms, making pencil marks on their bubble-sheets. The tension is the room is palpable and mistakes, which normally we encourage as equally valuable in the learning process as correct answers, are to be not merely avoided, but feared.

I’m sure I could test this claim, but I wouldn’t use a bubble-sheet to do so.


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