Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Timed Tests are Stupid

I have a friend who thinks that one of the main criteria of intelligence is knowing lots of facts. This same friend believes that another defining characteristic of intelligence is speed. This friend thinks that I am somewhat smart. I read a lot (and widely) so there are a lot of facts stored away in my head. I also have fairly fast recall, though not as fast as it was when I was younger.

On the surface, my friend’s picture of intelligence makes sense. It is certainly one that correlates highly with good grades in school. If possessed in sufficient quantities, factual knowledge and ready access to those facts make standardized tests relatively easy.

I like taking tests. Especially standardized tests. I always have. I find them pretty easy and I LOVE the added element of a severe time limit. I do well under pressure and usually score pretty high. As a 50-year old, I have very few opportunities in my life to take standardized tests any more. So instead I get my ego stroked by playing trivia games and doing timed crossword puzzles on the New York Times’ website. I am not proud to admit that I do these things, because I know that deep down they really do serve just one purpose—to make me feel good about myself.

As a product of schools that graded based on timed recall of facts, I used to believe that intelligence was a thing you could measure in just exactly that way—gauge how many facts a person knew and how quickly they could recall them. But once I became a teacher, I saw how utterly wrong, and even destructive, this view of intelligence is for so many kids.

If I develop a pain in my abdomen that won’t go away, that seems to move around a bit, that doesn’t respond to antacids, that wakes me up in the night, and seems worse after I eat dairy products, eventually I will go to a doctor. And once I describe my symptoms to the doctor, if she is flummoxed and no obvious diagnosis comes to her right away the LAST thing I want her to do is to take a guess.

If my car starts to run a little rough, (especially in the rain), and it makes a knocking sound when it idles below 1500 RPMs, and it has a bit of trouble accelerating up hills, I will take it to a mechanic. If, after hearing the list of symptoms, the mechanic cannot say exactly what is wrong I do not want her to just replace the fuel injectors.

In both cases I want the expert to do some digging. I want them to research my symptoms and ask follow up questions and to take it out for a test drive—(the car, not my abdomen). I want them to slowly and methodically isolate the problem and then help me fix it.

The factors that make a doctor or an auto mechanic good are careful listening, a deep pool of basic knowledge and experience with bodies and cars, a network of colleagues to consult with, excellent research skills, an ability to focus, an ability to think critically, and a reservoir of patience.

These are the very same skills we should be developing in students. Notice that high among these skills is a deep pool of basic knowledge. We should absolutely be teaching facts. Memorizing multiplication tables, state capitals, planets, the periodic table, countries of the world, and all sorts of other facts is a good thing and should not be tossed aside in favor of teaching critical thinking.  But this sort of list-based learning should be seen for what it is—a necessary preliminary step and NOT the true measure of intelligence.

I have been thinking a lot about timed tests recently. My daughter is a sophomore in high school and she has tests all the time. Most of the tests are given in a 45-minute class period with no time later to finish what you did not get to or to check over your work. Is this really a good way to test what people know? If you really want to find out what students know, wouldn’t you give them enough time to let them show you what they know rather than increasing their anxiety and making it more likely they will make mistakes?

Seems pretty basic, doesn’t it? Yet timed tests are still the most common way teachers and states evaluate what students have learned. As someone with many years of classroom teaching experience, I get it. Schools are organizations built on structure and predictability.

Put bluntly, schools need to move hundreds or even thousands of kids through their day with maximum predictability and minimum friction. In most high schools, the master schedule is driven by the size of the cafeteria—how many kids can eat lunch 4th period? 5th period? 6th period? If school systems really valued student learning as the top priority, class schedules would look very different, as would tests.

When I go to the doctor or the mechanic I do not give them a 43 minute time limit to correctly diagnose the problem. Then why do we add the unnecessary element of time to our evaluations of what kids have learned?

If I am in a car crash and trapped behind the wheel with a collapsed lung, I want the rescue crew to get me out of there as fast as possible. But reading a passage and answering comprehension questions is not a life and death situation. Why do we treat it like it is? Working through a complex geometry problem involving the quadratic equation quickly will never save someone’s life—so why do teachers and schools continue to use timed tests to find out what kids know?

It is a well-known truism among teachers that what you test on should reflect what you value. In a twisted way, our utter over-reliance on timed tests bears this out. As a society we value speed and busy-ness. We do not seem to value quiet reflection or the student who says “let me think my way through this.”

I understand that all of this is really just a reflection of the deeper problem of education in America. We still don’t agree on what schools are for. Are they a great democratizing place where our kids go and all of them learn facts, but also learn how to find, process, consolidate, evaluate, and synthesize information in order to be citizens who can participate fully in our democracy? Or are they the place we send kids to train them for whatever entry-level jobs will demand of them? Do we want our schools to help our kids come to their own well-founded, well-considered conclusions or do we want them to be able to produce a lot of factual information quickly?

You value what you test.

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