Getting in a Mess Over Testing

In the last week or so, the debate about testing in the US took a significant new direction with a decree from the President, Barack Obama with the headline – “We’ve been doing too much testing.” Here’s a New York Times story with more background on the issues:

New York Times – Calls for Limits on Testing in Schools

There is real irony in this story and the way that it’s reported. Politicians dictating to educators about how children will be educated. For example, no clues are given as to how they’ve arrived at this figure of 2% of instructional time to be given to testing. As the article quite rightly suggests, with testing not defined, who decides what forms part of the 2%? Also, if the testing is rubbish it doesn’t matter whether it occupies 2% of a student’s learning time in school – it’s still going to be wasted time.

Further, we have to be realistic. part of the problem with high stakes testing isn’t the actual time the tests take to conduct. it’s all the other associated lost time that worries me. If, as is often the case, teachers are going to find their performance assessed according to the performance of the students in the exams, we can hardly be surprised that the teachers turn over large amounts of learning time to ‘test preparation’. Before you know it, even with one annual cycle of exams, way more time is lost in revision lessons, exam priming sessions, practicing for the processes of answering the exam questions etc. Before you know it, learning to excel in the exam has become far more important than learning.

Then, in most Indian schools, my experience suggests that combined pressure from the parents, the students and the teachers will see one exam take place per day, with the remainder of the day written off for the child to go home and ‘mug up’ for the next. Then, there are often some days declared as ‘non-instructional’ while the teachers do the marking of the exam papers. Then, we lose some more learning focus and time whilst everyone fills themselves with angst about the results afterwards.

The net effect in an academic year that typically amounts to about 190 school days is that, easily over 10% of learning time is lost to this process. I have always felt that this was truly bizarre if the purpose is really to check progress and point the way for future learning.

So, while the US tackles the mess it’s got itself into with a new limit on testing time, the Indian educators need to take a long cold hard look at the entrenched habits of examinations.

School must be for learning, not testing.

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