Saturday, September 7, 2013

Some Thoughts on Testing

The house needs to have old galvanized pipes replaced, so I have four different plumbers come and give estimates.  Each looks over the job and points out different issues, and, eventually, they all offer slightly different quotes.  None of these are so high or so low as to knock a company out of consideration.  So, unlike the stereotypical exam problem with its A,B,C, or D, there is no right answer.  Probably, any of the plumbers could do the job satisfactorily.
            This, to me, highlights one problem with school testing, particularly the end of the year exams that most school systems institute in the third grade.  They suggest questions have one right answer.  Most of us know this usually isn’t true, we say it isn’t true, but, again and again, we insist students act as if it is.
I wonder if this is why, as a college teacher, I increasingly see in some students an unwillingness, or at least a hesitation, to tackle open-ended questions.  Is the clichéd “What do you want?” more pronounced because they have been taught by the mechanics of the system that there is a “right” choice? Furthermore, there seems to be a reluctance to pursue a subject once they think they have the answer.  They "research" until they have enough quotations or points they think they need for support rather until they understand the topic.  It’s a rational response.  If you know it’s B, why spend time and energy to find out more about the issue?  Move on to the next hoop, the next obligation.
            Before deciding on a plumber, my wife and I discussed the quotes. We also talked to our neighbors and other people.  We got on-line and googled.  We sought advice and information.  This is how most people work, and this is another problem with testing.  Supposedly Einstein was once teased for not knowing his phone number.  Why, he asked, should I memorize something I can look up? What you know is not nearly as important as how you find something out.  If there must be a test, it should be one where the student don’t know the answers and must find them out.  We would learn much more about their capabilities.
            My wife and I talked to people because we learn from one another.  Education is a collaborative effort.  Every professional I know from the mechanic to the surgeon talks things out with colleagues.  We ask questions, we get advice, we tell anecdotes and stories.  If my doctor wants to consult with someone on my condition, that’s not cheating.  Testing, however, isolates people and says, “you’re on your own," but that's not how we actually work.  
            Finally, what did my wife and I do as we talked about the quotes?  We walked around the house and the yard.  We walked through the neighborhood.  Moving and thinking are connected.  Put me in a room and tell me I can’t leave my seat, and my primary desire becomes getting away, a desire that distorts my responses.
            Mark Twain once said, “I have never let schooling interfere with my education.”  Testing, not only has little to do with education, it often is antithetical to it.


  1. We used to get berated in class for attempting to ask to sharpen our pencils during a standardized test, let alone looking for clarification or anything relevant to our understanding of the material or its usefulness. Certainly the "you're on your own" sentiment of testing never inspired me to try with them (luckily I didn't really need to in order to move forward, my friends and I would constantly poke fun at lack of usefulness) nor come close to learning from/for them. Certainly wasted a precious amount of class time though.

  2. I think the title of this entry should have been, "Some Thoughts on Thinking."