Opinion: How to properly test students

Published 1:51 pm Monday, August 14, 2023

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By BARTON PERKINS | Staff Writer

I’ve never been a good test taker.

I’ve been that way since the first grade when our teacher would have us put up these paper “privacy folders” around our desks and then give us a sheet to fill in answer bubbles with a yellow number two pencil. 

“Teaching for the test” is a mentality that has existed in American education since the 80s and has only gotten worse over the years. I say worse because I’ve been on both sides of the equation. I grew up a test taker, and I became a test giver when I worked in the DC public school system. 

Examinations are, by themselves, not really a terrible thing, in my opinion. They generally provide a solid benchmark for where a student is and what they could improve. However, how we’ve been giving tests and how much value we put on “the test” has become terrible. That’s partially because of a nifty little invention called a scantron.

Scantrons are a machine that quickly and accurately grade standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. A teacher hands out a sheet of paper and the student answers multiple-choice questions by filling in bubbles. Then, the answer sheet is inserted into a scantron, and the test is graded almost automatically. It’s quick. It’s easy. And according to experts like George Couros, it’s been eroding innovation in education.

I had the pleasure of attending one of Couros’ presentations on Monday, Aug. 7 where he talked to Pelham City Schools’ faculty about how to be innovative in education. 

“A lot of people think innovation is synonymous with technology,” he said. “I need to tell you this; the scantrons are not innovative. When I taught high school, we got a scantron, and boom! Everything goes balls with choices. It had nothing to do with ‘How do we deepen learning for our kids?’ It was all about ‘how can I make my life easier?’”

As a former educator, I’d be lying if I said that I never fell for the siren song of the scantron. It just makes life so much easier. The turnaround on grading is almost instant, and it gives you time. Time is a rare commodity in a classroom, especially when you sometimes have to teach 40 kids at once without any other adult in the room. Standardized tests seem like such a simple and fast way to make your life easier and see where each of your students is academically.

The thing is, though, they aren’t. 

Multiple choice tests don’t do much besides teaching kids how to memorize and regurgitate facts onto paper. They don’t learn how to think about a topic in an abstract or complex way, let alone how to articulate it. It’s the difference between knowing the names of the three different branches of the Federal Government and being able to explain how a bill becomes a law. For the first, all you need to know is the name of each branch: legislative, executive and judicial. For the second, you need to know what role each branch plays and what steps someone needs to take to pass a new law.

But the biggest problem with standardized tests is that it’s only one assessment. It doesn’t consider anything else going on in the students’ lives, like a dead grandma or feeling sick. It doesn’t consider how a student has been doing the rest of the year in other assignments. It doesn’t look at them as an individual. It views them as a number.

Seeing students as individuals is something else that many education advocates, Couros included, have been discussing for years. Students are likelier to do well in school if they feel like their teachers and peers are invested in them and their education. It makes them more eager learners and deeper thinkers. We shouldn’t teach for the test; we should teach our children to enjoy learning.

The other day I was at Pelham Oaks Elementary, reporting on the new school year. I saw a line of kindergarteners giggling as their teacher led them one by one to take their school pictures. I couldn’t help but smile. I know that it’s probably inevitable that all the kids going back to school this week will probably keep on being judged on test scores. Despite that, I can’t help but hope that they’ll grow up to love learning.