kitchen table math, the sequel: Another article (or two): Is it bad to test students frequently?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Another article (or two): Is it bad to test students frequently?

Two recent New York Times articles fly in the face of conventional pop psychology and education theory.

An article in last week's Science Section on study habits cites cognitive science research indicating that the act of taking a test can enhance learning:
The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.
As Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis puts it, “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it.”

Next we have a front page article in this weekend's Week in Review on Testing, the Chinese Way, written by Elisabeth Rosenthal, whose children spent a year at the International School of Beijing where "taking tests was as much a part of the rhythm of their school day as recess or listening to stories." Citing personal experience, Rosenthal argues that:

>Young children aren't necessarily aware that they are being "tested."

>Frequent tests give children important feedback about how they are doing.

>Frequent tests offer a more meaningful way to improve self-esteem than frequent praise does.

On this past point, Rosenthal cites Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
Professor Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better."
Cizek's overall take on testing in schools? “Research has long shown that more frequent testing is beneficial to kids, but educators have resisted this finding:”

Rosenthal concludes on a particularly powerful note:
When testing is commonplace and the teachers are supportive — as my children’s were, for the most part — the tests felt like so many puzzles; not so much a judgment on your being, but an interesting challenge. It is a testament to the International School of Beijing — or to the malleability of childhood memory — that Andrew now says he did not realize that he was being tested. Will tests be like that in a national program, like Race to the Top?

When we moved back to New York City, my children, then 9 and 11, started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical. They didn’t last long. It turned out they had come to like the feedback of testing.

“How do I know if I get what’s going on in math class?” my daughter asked with obvious discomfort after a month. Primed with Beijing test-taking experience, they each soon tested into New York City’s academic public schools — where they have had tests aplenty and (probably not surprisingly) a high proportion of Asian classmates.


le radical galoisien said...

Yes. For some reason we were motivated to complete all these exams even though they basically made up 5% of our grade.

In Singapore, being marked wrong only meant you had to do it again. And you had a lot of homework and testing. So of course the incentive of getting something right the first time is not having to redo it.

70% of your grade was decided by a single exam at the end of the year.

But in primary and secondary school, we never talked about studying for exams. The exams were questions we had seen time and time again, sometimes for years.

And the PSLE was stuff you had seen time and time again for six years, just built up.

However the older generation grew up in an era before the modern PSLE and modern Singapore math education (which was dismal before the 1980s).

Which was why they told me to "stop playing soccer afterschool! go study for the PSLE!" when the PSLE was still months away.

But I don't think they got the fact that -- everyone had already been studying for it since forever. The way we constantly got drilled, I was superconfident about the material.

So I continued to sneak a soccer ball into primary school. And then faithfully did all the mock exams which were like assigned to us every day.

Tex said...

le radical --

If all these exams only made up 5% of the grade, how were parents supposed to know if their children were progressing satisfactorily?

I could see a scenario where a blissfully ignorant parent (and maybe the child) would receive an unpleasant surprise at the end of the course if the student did poorly on the final exam, which counts for 70% of the grade.

Tex said...

Thank you for linking together these two different articles making the point that testing is a good thing, a view that I suspect is heresy among many NYT readers.

lgm said...

I'd like to hear a pyschologists take on this. How can a middle schooler, who is searching to know he's excelling at something, determine if he is excelling at school or needs to put in more effort if there is never any formative testing?

Independent George said...

The best analogy I could think of is the introduction of compstat in NYC.

Testing gives you a snapshot of student progress, and frequent testing gives you a pretty good assessment early enough to make a difference.

The NYPD was slow to embrace the system because, in the short-term, it quantified exactly how badly they were doing. In doing so, however, it allowed them to identify the hotspots and put resources in exactly the places they could accomplish the most. It also told them whether what they were doing worked, and what the tradeoffs were.