Reimagine Learning

Testing Should Promote Learning Goals (and Not the Other Way Around)

Imagine that you’re a visitor from another world, examining the US education system. Much of the experience would be pretty close to what you might expect of Earthlings, but you might be surprised to find out how much time we spend on tests. And it isn’t just taking the tests, either. It’s also the time preparing for the tests, reviewing key concepts, practicing under realistic and time-pressured conditions, and getting students ready for the psychological aspects of testing.

Testing is clearly a major focus of our educational system, and you wouldn’t even have to be from Mars to find this emphasis a bit unusual. Visitors from other countries have the same reaction, as would observers from the US of just a few decades ago. It’s probably worth asking, then, why we do things the way we do.

First, let’s think about the purpose of assessment: to measure. At all levels of education, we need to know what works and what doesn’t. We need to know who has achieved the relevant learning objectives and who isn’t there yet. For these reasons and others, assessment plays a vital role in every educational environment. A good assessment provides information about the knowledge possessed by the examinees and gives the examinees the chance to demonstrate what they have learned.

That might seem relatively noncontroversial, but it doesn’t explain the amount of time we focus on testing. To do that, it helps to analyze a few other factors:

  • High stakes: The consequences of test performance drive behavior. When a school’s reputation or even its credentials depend on test scores, that school will make testing a serious priority.
  • Lots of learning objectives: The more learning objectives you have, the more testing you do, and our standards are often extensive and precise. To see how this plays out, examine the Common Core standards1 for just one subject and just one grade, and ask yourself how much testing you would need to do in order to be convinced that those standards had all been met.
  • Test prep works: The structure of testing makes some amount of preparation a virtual necessity. While some people are natural test takers, most benefit from familiarity with the test, strategic advice, and focused practice. Put another way, anyone who is unfamiliar with the question types, the scoring of the test, or the subset of the curriculum that will be tested will be at a serious disadvantage.

This description might make the status quo seem inevitable, but we have options. There are ways to measure what we want to measure without signing over so much time to testing and test prep. One promising path is to merge the learning experience and the testing experience so that the students who have achieved learning objectives has also created a body of work that proves their achievement. Simulations, games, and other interactive experiences can provide a record that could make traditional testing experiences unnecessary in many instances.

Another way to improve our relationship with assessment is to focus more on higher-order skills and less on skills that are so amenable to “drill and kill” practice. Currently, too many tests are weighted towards memorization and following directions, in large part because those skills are easier to test. People generally agree that higher-order skills are crucial for success in the workplace, but they tend to get neglected in large part because they are harder to measure. If we had better ways to measure higher-order skills, that barrier would be gone, and we could improve learning experiences and reduce testing time simultaneously.

These are by no means the only ways to improve the situation, but any improvement depends on having a healthy understanding of the value of testing. Measurement is important, but the tail shouldn’t wag the dog. Tests should be designed to support learning, and not the other way around.