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Testing to Learn, Not Learning to Test

May, 2011
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As another school year is about to culminate in final exams, it’s interesting to reflect on the opening of Hard Times, Charles Dickens’ 1854 novel, set in an imaginary industrial city know as Coketown. The tale begins in a schoolhouse with a rant from the schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Gradgrind is cynically portrayed as an educator who believes he is doing the virtuous duty of preparing pupils for a role in the world of profit and enterprise. Two centuries later, vestiges of the philosophy satirized by Dickens remain intact in parts of the world. Testing regimes weighted heavily on the assessment of memorized facts and figures are still used as the final measuring stick of a child’s academic career.

“Facts can only get one so far,” says Tom Marling, IB Diploma Coordinator at Western International School of Shanghai (WISS), “it’s the application/analysis/relevancy of those bits of knowledge that will determine survival and success in an uncertain future.” For Marling, “The question is not […] if students learn (of course they do, with or without teachers and schools), but what exactly they are learning in schools.” If schools fritter away valuable time prepping students to master the skills required to succeed on tests that have as more in common with gambling than learning, teaching explicitly to tests, and/or drilling facts for short-term retention, the child, and society, will be shortchanged. As Anna Haraszti, a secondary math teacher working in one of Xiehe’s Education’s two Shanghai high schools explains, “Test taking has become an important life skill that has to be taught.” In the testing world, the big winners are often those who have the knowledge and the test-taking prowess. However, in real life, says Haraszti, “you’re not always going to be given four answers to choose from, or prescribed a method of solution.” This is why a growing number of educators are proponents of moving from testing – or assessment – as a final destination (assessment of learning) to a paradigm where it is utilized as a means for improving thinking and learning (assessment for learning).

One possible starting point for letting assessment drive learning might sound unusual at first, but to veteran expat educator, Sheridan Potter, “giving the test at the beginning and the end” makes sense. By setting a theme test at the start of a unit as well as at the end, “you’ll find out what students already know,” suggests Potter. Her argument is simple. After seeing the results of the first test, you will know right away where to focus your time and energy. “When you assess again at the end of the unit, you’ll also be able to make more informed judgments about what students have actually learned in your classroom, and what was previous knowledge,” she concludes. Assessment for learning need not always start with a test, but it must be interwoven into a teacher’s curriculum planning from the beginning.

Jessie Xu, one of Potter’s Chinese colleagues, believes that to maximize learning, formative, ongoing assessment before the “paper test” is required. This means regularly sharing learning goals with the students so they know what they are aiming for, as well as providing them with constant feedback based on interim checks so they know where to improve. Ongoing assessment can also involve comparing past and present achievements, as well as learner self-assessment techniques that engage children, require them to look at how they learn best, and inspire them to think about how they can improve. By getting kids to analyze their own assessment results and reflect on what they truly understand, a foundation that supports greater learning is built. Finally, when the paper test does come, say Xu, it is “not to see how many points each student gets… but to find out what children are good and not so good at to improve their learning even more.” 

Julie Jihong Zhou and her daughter Eva, one of Xu’s students, embrace this approach. Their collective brainstorm on the subject led to the conclusion that if we are “blinded by the score itself” we could “neglect the importance of knowledge application in life.” By involving students in the review of their learning through ongoing assessment, students are not only empowered to improve their performance, they also develop thinking and life skills that will transcend the assessment process. This is time well spent, as it “helps kids to improve their knowledge and capability progressively and accumulatively,” Zhou elaborates. Indeed, understanding one’s own competences is a skill that will prove to be valuable throughout live.

Ted Corbould, a teacher from Canada, has worked in two different Shanghai schools since beginning his international career in Thailand. Working abroad has exposed him to the demands of teaching to a variety of English language levels in the same classroom. As he explains, this has led to some children “feeling upset that they are not able to achieve the same test scores as others.” As a result, he advocates ensuring that students too “know that assessment is geared towards improving learning.” He uses his academic training as a school counselor to create this understanding through class meetings that involve everyone.

When mixed ability levels are present, it is also essential that assessments – both formative and summative – are differentiated. Progress can then be assessed in terms of individual progress, as opposed to less realistic, standardized scores. Corbould further advocates that teachers should use tests to reflect on their own learning-focused pedagogy. “If the kids are scoring poorly on the assessments, then the teacher needs to rethink their planning and presentation.”

Meanwhile, Haraszti and Marling both point to healthy new approaches in summative assessment that are learning-guided. In math testing, for example, many exams – such as those offered by Cambridge International Examinations in the UK, and the IB, based in Geneva, Switzerland – “often offer more points for showing the thought process than for getting the right final answer” explains Haraszti, This allows the exam itself to be a critical thinking learning experience, as opposed to a guessing game, or something that can be mastered by drilling. WISS student Reina Fukushima agrees. “The IB questions make us think a lot,” she says. “In addition to examinations,” her Coordinator, Marling, adds, “the IB requires extensive coursework, including ‘internal assessments’ – papers, labs, portfolios, etc.” These assignments are required to earn the prestigious IB Diploma, as they measure applied problem solving, and a range of practical skills, from researching to working to a deadline, all relevant to success in a rapidly changing global society.

Looking back and looking forward, it would be misguided to argue that we are still living in Coketown, where students were called by their numbers rather than their given names. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that we are in an era of transition where new approaches to assessment are coming up against the previous status quo. To quote Corbould’s co-homeroom teacher, Peach Tao, “If there were no exams, there wouldn’t be any way to know how much students have learned.” Consequently, it makes sense to posit that testing should be used to help measure a child’s learning, if not – in varying degrees – to determine a school’s success. It is how and when we use assessment that requires rethinking. As surely as some might find it odd to begin a new topic with a test, using knowledge-driven endpoint tests as the only means of assessment will lead to judgments and social outcomes which are insufficient.  

That is a fact.   


By Richard Eaton

Head of North American School,

Shanghai United International School

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