April 20, 2006

The Use of Tests

In honor of Anna's students, who are hard at work testing, even as we speak:

I've always been a good test-taker. Among the earliest memories of my elementary education are getting called up to the teacher's desk to get a candy or a sticker or something as a reward for my grade having been among the highest in the class. Of course, at good ol' Rex Ralph, that wasn't exactly saying much... over half of the children in the class were socio-economically disadvantaged on a level comparable with the inner city, and besides that I had the advantage of having parents who cared about my learning and kept me supplied with books and math help and anything else I could need to be a good student.

As I came to get lazier throughout my education, my skills as a test-taker coupled with my ability to craft long, seemingly-meaningful essays on subjects about which I knew nothing got me through in the top 10% of my class with a minimal output of effort. I was an expert student of the point of diminishing returns on the effort-to-academic reward graph, and my effort nearly always sat right at that point, knowing full well that I could rely on my test-taking skills to take me the rest of the way.

It always came as a shock to me that people would hate tests. To me, testing was the most efficient way of raising your grade: 30-40 minutes worth of work (2 hours, tops) for the equivalent of the points yielded by several days worth of constant homework output. The concept that a test would be innately problematic was foreign, as was the concept that my ability would not be reflected, or even magnified, by the test.

It was not until the end of my second semester at college that I came to appreciate the hatred of testing that many others knew. Surprisingly, it wasn't the increased amount of study, the increased difficulty, or even the ease at which my professors cut through the dross of my iron-clad bs... it was a grossly unfair final at the end of Calculus 3.

To give you some perspective, Calculus 3 is probably the class at LeTourneau for which I did the most work (runner-up being Circuits 2, which I dropped before it eclipsed Calc 3 in sheer work output.) I did homework 2-3 hours a night, 3 days a week, pretty much without fail, all semester long. This is more of a testament to a group of guys on my floor who worked together than any great claim to academic fortitude which I might lay in my own right. We worked, and we cajoled and we tutored each other... in an area where I was weak, KorMex would give me guidance... and in areas where I actually knew what was going on (Series), I would attempt to explain the tutoring which I had received a year before in high school. We worked our asses off, and we got to the final, mostly holding steady at some form of B or low A. Toad and I figured that we needed some form of A or high B to get an A in the class, and then some form of low B through a C (or maybe even a D) to maintain a B. We took the final, and it was brutal. In the end, Toad and I both had C's.

So yeah, now I have something of an understanding of why people hate tests. And to make testing the almost sole metric of everything that a student learns in a year... that's just stupid. Granted, they are a more objective metric is some respects, but they are also flawed in that they exploit the weakness of any student with a hard time focusing, a lack of discipline (to take a test that could take hours to complete), and a lack of respect for one of the fundamental paradigms of education, which keeps repeating that testing shouldn't be the only thing used to judge the academic viability of a student. Single-faceted evaluations are almost universally considered a Bad Idea... and yet Texas and the nation as a whole (well, really, President Bush) keep pusing the notion that all we need is more testing in education.

Posted by Vengeful Cynic at April 20, 2006 09:04 AM | TrackBack