Standardised tests are very good for testing the sort of knowledge that can be drilled into students, rather than real learning. Because testing is most efficient and cost-effective when it requires short-answers or multiple choice questions that are easily scored, the sort of knowledge it tests tends to be memory-based, or a contrived exercise in logic, rather than “more meaningful forms of assessment that require human beings to evaluate the quality of student’s accomplishment”.
The tests “merely sample the curriculum and do not assess depth of understanding, meaningful application of knowledge, or original thinking. Consequently, the curriculum becomes narrower and shallower”.
President of the National Academy of Science, Bruce Alberts, notes that “it’s easier to test for facts than understanding” and an emphasis on tests tends to reduce primary school science to memorising facts such as the thirty different kinds of whales rather than understanding how the world works.
Tests may be okay for finding out how much information a student has absorbed but education also involves making connections, finding patterns and imagining possibilities, none of which standardised tests deal with. The Australian Council of Education Deans, notes of standardised tests:
They rely on memory when knowledge is increasingly supported by ever-present props (books to look up, people to ask, help menus and help desks). And they measure certain limited kinds of intelligence, and to be precise, these are just those kinds of intelligence which thrive on what tests measure. Tests are an excellent measure of a person’s ability to do tests, and not much else.
For the questions to have right and wrong answers, either the answers are biased and reflect a particular point of view or the material they are testing tends to be superficial so that there is no disagreement about the answers: “For example, it’s easier to get agreement on whether a semi-colon has been used correctly than on whether an essay represents clear thinking.”
Because tests are timed, students are being tested for speed over and above thoughtfulness or thoroughness. Critical thinking does not help get higher marks. Students have to find quick answers rather than to reflect and critically analyse their subject. Students who are “actively” engaged in their learning, seeking to connect it to other things they know and questioning what they are learning tend to do more poorly in such tests, though not always, than students who just focus on memorising what they have to, skipping things that are to difficult, and guessing answers.
What matters in testing is getting the right answers, not the process used to get those answers. It is possible to get the right answer without understanding the underlying concepts and to get the wrong answer although one understands the concepts. In maths tests, students are able to get high scores by memorising steps and procedures rather than understanding why they are carrying them out. Less than five percent of questions in such tests require “high level conceptual knowledge” or “high level thinking skills such as problem solving and reasoning”. In other tests, skills such as the ability to formulate a logical argument are not tested.
Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgement, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes.
Students are likely to learn from these tests, and the emphasis their schools put on preparing for them, that education is all about memorising facts and methods and that intelligence is about how much you know and how fast you can regurgitate it. Worse still they may come to believe that there is a right and wrong answer for everything including life’s problems and that someone in authority has that answer. Therefore there is no point in questioning facts, critically assessing reports, or applying one’s own intellect to coming up with an individual interpretation of a problem.
According to the Australian Council of Deans of Education, the focus on learning “narrow, decontextualised, abstract and fragmented” information, that is encouraged by standardised testing, is likely to produce “compliant learners, people who would accept what was presented to them as correct, and who passively learnt off by heart knowledge which could not easily be applied in different and new contexts.” This is not likely to encourage critical thinking.
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