Why do we test the way that we do?

I think that I have been watching too much John Oliver lately, because I find myself questioning the very foundation of everything education holds near and dear.  If you don’t know who John Oliver is, or haven’t seen an episode of Last Week Tonight, I highly recommend that you check out his segment on standardized testing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6lyURyVz7k.  I love that his show has segments that dig deeply into controversial subjects and forces you to question public beliefs (with a humorous lens).  **Don’t watch John Oliver when children are around – he uses adult only language and content at times.**  Quite frankly, I like to be challenged, and I believe that we should always reflect on our systems to see if we are doing things because they work or just because we have “always done it that way.”

Along those lines, I am challenging why we assess students the way that we do in education.  For instance, why is it that we teach students a brand new concept and then expect them to master it immediately?  Oh sure, we give them some practice, and maybe a few nights of homework, a class discussion, and possibly an investigation, but then we expect them to have it down.  I mean, seriously, where in the world is that realistic?  Oh, you want to be a doctor, OK, day 1, here is a heart in a cadaver, day 2, perform open heart surgery.  Or what about sports?  Do we expect a 5 year old at their first baseball practice to throw from center field to home plate?  However, we expect to show a 5 year old words for the first time and then give them a reading test.  The worst part of that test is that how we judge not only that child for years to come, but also the teacher.  This seems like crazy logic to me!

Quite a few years ago, I had this epiphany while teaching a sophomore Geometry class.  Like the two years before, I taught chapter 1, then gave the chapter 1 test, moved to chapter 2, gave the chapter 2 test, and so on.  Right after Christmas break, when students were organizing their notebooks, a student mused while looking over his dismal score of a 62% on his chapter 1 test, “Why did I miss all of these questions?  These are so easy!  Was I sick that day?”  So, I thought to myself, well of course you know it now, because Geometry builds on itself and we have been using that stuff from chapter 1 over and over.  Is that student a ‘D’ student?  Really?  Instead, I changed the whole testing process.  At the end of a chapter, I gave a practice test that the students scored themselves.  I asked for feedback on what questions were missed and why and took those results forward into the upcoming instruction. However, I didn’t give a formal test. If it was a concept I knew we would do a lot, then I just refocused the students when it showed up, or I added review while connecting to new ideas.  Rather than teach chapter 1 and then test on it, I taught chapters 1, 2, and 3 then tested over chapter 1.  Shockingly, the scores were amazing!  Then I went even further to have a chapter 1 & 2 application project that students worked on and were given feedback on well before the chapter 1 test.  The test scores got even higher.  The only bummer was the very end of the year – because I couldn’t follow them into summer, but I tried to compact some things so that there were more application projects in the last few weeks to really practice the material.  It would have been a perfect system if I could let that last test go and move it to the next year, but, that was a pipe dream…

Over time, I gave that practice of “letting the test wait” up.  I cashed it in for taking a pre-test, scoring it yourself, then taking the “real” test.  I then allowed students to re-take tests on the material until mastery was shown.  I’m not even sure why I changed back to the archaic system of learn, test, learn, test.  It probably had to do with district made finals and benchmarks – or assessments being out of my control.  Our system just promotes failure, not true learning.  We ask children to take academic risks, but then punish them for actually doing it.  Everything has to be right now.  Learn this now, master this now, because we have to hurry, hurry, hurry.  For what exactly??  And we wonder why so many students don’t like school…

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