Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Does the Future of Testing Need Tests?

I’d like to highlight three recent articles, each a worthy read. Together they illuminate a trend in educational testing from big, scary tests to smaller, frequent tests to maybe no need for tests.

Testing, The Chinese Way

Consider Testing, the Chinese Way. In it, Elisabeth Rosenthal says, “When my children were 6 and 8, taking tests was as much a part of the rhythm of their school day as tag at recess or listening to stories at circle time.”

Rosenthal’s family was living in China, where “a march of tests for young children was regarded as normal, and not evil or particularly anxiety provoking.” From this experience, Rosenthal asks, “What makes a test feel like an interesting challenge rather than an anxiety-provoking assault?”

This Test Has Been Canceled

In This Test Has Been Canceled, Keith O’Brien says, “[T]here is growing evidence that final exams — once considered so important that universities named a week after them — are being abandoned or diminished.”

O’Brien suggests a prime cause is the growing favor for frequent, small tests over big, end-of-term finals. In support, O’Brien cites numerous experts and research examples, including these results from a poll of 600 students in a University of Arizona astronomy class:

93 percent of students said they’d prefer weekly quizzes over a couple of large midterms and a final. Seventy-eight percent reported actually learning more that way, and almost all of them — 98 percent — said they were less stressed taking short, weekly quizzes than they were taking large exams.

Learning by Playing

If educators are already tilting toward smaller tests, technology in the classroom may push things further. In Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom, Sara Corbett profiles a New York charter school...

...organized specifically around the idea that digital games are central to the lives of today’s children and also increasingly, as their speed and capability grow, powerful tools for intellectual exploration....Once it has been worked over by game designers, a lesson doesn’t look like a lesson anymore. It is now a quest....

A well-built game is, in essence, a series of short-term feedback loops, delivering assessment in small, frequent doses....[G]ames themselves could feasibly replace tests altogether. Students, by virtue of making it through the escalating levels of a game that teaches, say, the principles of quantum physics, will demonstrate their mastery simply by finishing the game. Or, as [Arizona State’s James Paul Gee] says: “Think about it: if I make it through every level of Halo, do you really need to give me a test to see if I know everything it takes to get through every level of Halo?”

That’s a provocative question. It asks us to consider whether the future of testing needs what we today call tests. I doubt the answer will be a simple yes or no. But the fact such a fundamental question is in play suggests interesting times ahead.

[See also, from 2007: Review: Shaffer’s “How Computer Games Help Children Learn”]

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