I am giving a test next week. I don’t give many.
…When I was a kid, my teachers always gave tests. I was schooled in a testing culture… School was something like this, in every subject, with most of my teachers… Do you remember anything like this?
- Teacher says “In this unit we are going to learn ______. You need to know this because it is important! ______ is important because it is going to be on the test, and you can’t get a good job/be a good person/be intelligent, if you don’t know ______.” (By grade 5 or 6 a lot of kids stopped believing this. Others weren’t allowed to stop believing it because their parents really wanted them to go to university to become a doctor or lawyer.)
- It continued like this… Teacher puts notes on an overhead or chalkboard and talks a lot about stuff we don’t understand, and we don’t hear her anyway because we’re too busy copying things down. Some of the overheads have been used several times, but other teachers just wrote stuff down off the top of their heads (robots, electronic web-based lessons and software programs can do this now, but that’s okay because most industries won’t suffer irrelevance or job loss to these things – right? right?). Some kids don’t hear her or copy anything down because they can’t see it, can’t actually physically write well, or just don’t believe the teacher that this it is really important to know about… so they doodle, talk to neighbours or think about recess or how hungry they are because they didn’t get a breakfast that day. This goes on repeatedly, day after day, interrupted each day by a bell or a transition to the next 40 minute block of some other unrelated topic or subject. We forget half the stuff or more. Every classroom is organized in a way that tells us to worship whatever or whoever is at the front of the room, like the screen or the board we’re copying from for example. Talking isn’t usually allowed because it interrupts the person explaining the information or the people from copying it.
- In between classes, we get assigned sections of a textbook to read, usually at home with no guidance or provision of thinking and reading strategies, and then we answer questions from the back of the chapter. Really progressive publishers started putting them in the front of the chapter. We have to copy down the entire question before writing the answer, and we have to do it neatly or it doesn’t count.
- After we handed in the questions, we moved on to the next topic without stopping to see if everyone gets it. Sometimes the questions are marked, but most of the time they weren’t. In math you would read the textbook and answer questions 1-10, but only a,c,e,g,i,k or sometimes b,d,f,h,j,l. Really organized teachers had copies of worksheets to help us organize where to write the answers. And if they were really creative, they weren’t work sheets but crossword puzzles, connect the dots, or things where we got to cut and paste stuff. In elementary we would get to draw and colour a picture that related to the questions. In high school, drawing didn’t count, unless it was a map that we had to colour, then your spelling, drawing and colouring skills counted for more marks than whether you actually knew where something was or why it was geographically significant.
- We might do a science experiment or have a discussion. Experiments were a once a year thing. In discussing homework questions the teacher would give us a “participation mark” sometimes and comment on my report card that I’m either A: “Too disruptive – I would do better if I focused more” or B: “I need to participate more – I would do better if I raised my hand to answer the teacher’s questions more often.”
- Occasionally this routine was disrupted by a quiz to see if I remember any of the questions I answered. If I discussed or shared work with another student it was cheating and I got zero. These quizzes were collected and averaged to give me my “grade.” Other disruptions included marching down to the library (now bringing in the computers) to research, and then making a poster or an essay report or a presentation at the end of the unit about something we covered in the unit. As the calendar turned toward the late 1990s-2000s, you could use computers and make really cool presentations where 10% of your time was spent reading and learning, and the other 90% of the time spent thinking about what kind of cool bullets or background colours you could use. You usually didn’t get a choice for how to present the learning. If you were lucky, your parents did the project with you or for you because they were more worried about your mark than you were. The teacher never gave feedback on your research and planning along the way. The final mark was your final mark, unless you didn’t hand it in, in which case you got marks deducted. If you finished early or did something really cool you could get “bonus marks.” Some of my classmates actually got “105%” on their report card – wow! Lot’s of my university professors taught like this too, and were really angry my K-12 teachers didn’t do enough of this rigorous teaching, because clearly we weren’t prepared for more and more of this kind of “learning.”
- Then, when that was all done, we had the big test. It was often a combination of matching, fill in the blanks, short answer (which didn’t count unless you printed neatly and answered in a sentence), long answer, etc. The big test was really important. It decided if you learned something or you didn’t. But it didn’t matter, because by the time it was marked and handed back, the teacher had moved on to something else, and my mark for the learning was already set with no chance to change it.
Despite all that, with some small exceptions I loved this testing culture and enjoyed going there. There were cool things to do, like play instruments, draw and paint, go to carnivals and dress up days, hot dog days, sports teams and field trips. Most of my teachers really cared and poured their hearts into teaching, and I had great relationships with most of them.
There were these crazy exceptions to the testing culture. Like one teacher who made controversial statements (“Napoleon was a pizza!”) about historical people and events, and made you really think where you stood on the arguments and debates he started. Like my English teacher who dressed up as Shakespeare characters and made you think about big ideas like greed, ambition, heroism – and weaved these big ideas into literature discussions to make you want to read more and find other examples. Like my grade seven teacher who used games to make our math thinking visible and would give you feedback on how your thinking was interfering with your accuracy, or who let students plan their own camping trip. Like my grade two teacher who always linked reading and story with music and songs that we created together. There were others too. They were outliers, risk-takers, exceptions to the general culture. Some teachers and parents didn’t think they were rigorous.
In between the 6 hours of day spent at school, I learned a lot… From working on cars with my grandpa. From designing and building houses with my dad, or watching him shopping and negotiating prices for everyday things we needed. From watching my mom with her incredible work ethic running a successful contracting business. From my grandma on how to show generosity and genuinely care for people. From playing games like Scrabble, Monopoly and others than required math, strategy and literacy. From building rope swings in gullies and forts in trees twenty feet off the ground that sometimes broke, fell down or didn’t work. From books about history and other stuff I was really interested in. From planning family vacations using maps and what ever information we could find about where we wanted to go. From baseball statistics and baseball cards that made sense of averages, fractions and formulae. From starting my own business as a young adult building fences, painting and doing small home renovations. From my soccer, volleyball, basketball and baseball coaches who modelled and demonstrated how to collaborate and play a game with respect and courage. Now, when I want to learn something really important, I talk to people, read things, research them. I know how to learn because the people I was in relationship with outside of school, and those outlier teachers, modelled it and fostered it. Most of the things I know really well were never tested. Most of the things I’ve forgotten or never learned, were tested. Testing doesn’t really have much to do with learning… But they can serve a useful purpose.
We test students because they help us (teachers) to learn. Tests, designed well and used properly, provide feedback to us (teachers) so that we can see if the learning experiences we are planning for students have an impact on their learning. They are often a summative assessment of what students Know, Understand and can Do, but this information should be used by teachers to decide how to proceed, or where to proceed next with the teaching. Before we ever even get to the point of giving a test, we ought to have provided dozens of timely, appropriate and engaging opportunities for students to make their thinking visible and get prompt formative feedback on their learning, so that they can adjust their strategies, planning and problem solving. In which case, we should know the result of a test before we give it. And therefore, when the results don’t match our expectations, the next step shouldn’t be to move on to the next thing, but to ask: where and how do I need to adjust my instructional planning?
If we made this simple change, the testing culture would be transformed into a thinking culture, and thinking is necessary for learning. Testing isn’t.