Testing, assessment, examinations, and the value of marks

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Photo courtesy of arroclint

Tests are not evil. Exams are not the enemy. Despite all that you have heard and read, it just isn’t true. Tests really are a part of our normal everyday life despite what others want to make you think. The problem with testing and other forms of assessment isn’t that tests themselves are bad, it is how they are used and society’s warped view of value based on numbers.

Before I was an English language teacher, I worked for many years in a retail business environment. I started off in sales and eventually worked my way up to upper management and some time in purchasing. Every single day, whether is was on the sales floor or in the office, I was tested on my ability to recall information and process data on the fly. Yes, there were times I had to stop and look things up, but if I did that on a regular basis, people would lose faith in my ability to work in a fast-paced environment which would inevitably hurt my business. Haven’t you ever questioned someone’s ability to help you find the answer you are looking for when they are off looking for answers? Maybe it is in a hotel while checking in. It could be when you are buying a car or depositing money at the bank. One of the most important things we look for in those who are helping us is trust. We are putting our faith in people to help us make the proper decision. We don’t mind if they don’t have all the answers, but when someone is constantly looking for answers on their own, we often lose trust in that person and often walk away.

Testing is very much like that. We are fine if you don’t know all the answers, but in that controlled environment, we are looking to see if you have a foundational understanding that enables us to trust that you can move on to the next task or level. The problem is that tests are often used as a means to an end, not a step on the journey. We often use marks or grades as a punishment or reward system, making it into a test on that person’s character. A person shouldn’t be seen as bad or good based on marks, but these markers should be a measuring tool to find out if they are able to move on to the next rung of the learning ladder.

Everyone needs goals or targets in order to tell if they are actually learning anything. Setting goals should be a negotiated process and not something arbitrarily decided on by someone who has no stake in that student’s progress. This leads us to standardized testing. How can we use a test to measure everyone the same when everyone is different? Each person has different needs, goals, and abilities. What may seem like a walk in the park for one student may seem like a torrid pace for another. Allowing students to set goals and then achieve them teaches them more than giving a grade that in a sense is worthless. Tests can certainly be a part of that, just not one designed by someone completely separated from the situation.

As a language teacher, I am interested in linguistics and the historical basis of the language. There are a number of words related testing that I would like to examine a bit more closely (pun is completely intentional). All of these definitions are based on the information found in the Online Etymology Dictionary (a super resource for higher-level English language learners):

  • Test: The origin of the word comes from the melting pot that was used to determine the quality of metals. In this way, tests put us in a high-pressure situations to determine our knowledge of a subject. We can say we know something, but when push comes to shove, can we actually use this information.
  • Examination: It is a word based on the verb to examine which has it’s origin from exact. We are weighing out the facts to see if they are accurate or not.
  • Assessment: Comes from the verb to assess which comes from the ability to figure out the value of something. It actually was first used for tax purposes (ie. setting property value to calculate tax amounts), but has since been used as a judgement on anything of value.
  • Formative: This is based on the noun form which means the shape of something. Formative refers to the instructions or productions in the creation of something.
  • Summative: It has the origin in the word summation which means to total or add up. It started as a reference to finances, but switched to the total of anything later on.

After looking at each of these words, we can see that many of these words first started in the area of finance or business and were eventually adopted for educational purposes. It shows the value we put on education and on the measuring of our progress. We need to be careful not to take this metaphor too far, but it certainly is helpful in visualizing how testing and assessment should be used. How can we test what metal it is if we first don’t find out the properties of that metal? How can we weigh out the facts if we don’t know what we are weighing? How can be using what we have learned if we don’t find value in it? How can we know what to form if we don’t draw things out first? And how can we know know if something adds up if we don’t know what we are counting first?

The debate on whether we should use tests or not is actually the wrong fight to be picking. The real battle should be on how they are being used. Setting clearly defined tasks and goals should be a collaborative effort between the teacher and the student. This shouldn’t be a blanket decision for all students, nor should the direction be top-down, but should be more lateral. Even the concept of top-down and bottom-up brings in a level of superiority and submission. This should be a learning journey, not a judgement. Testing should reflect that. I often use open-book tests with a set time to complete the test. The questions are more open-ended and the answers are more negotiable. I feel this is a fairer way of measuring the students ability to use the knowledge they have been acquiring. Of course, this is completely negotiable. Just ask my students.

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