Bad Tradition: Tests in Classrooms

I watched my students take a math test the other day.  It was one of those tests that seems to take the entire 70-minute block.  Some finished early, others took the entire time, a few tended to need another day.  They were stressed, I was bored, and the entire day seemed to be a general energy drain.

So, as I watched, I had two thoughts.

First, I was still a little upset that my students are forced by the North Carolina Standard Course of Study to memorize geometry formulas.  I completely understand the need to discover them and to understand how to use them to solve problems; but memorizing formulas is so…1900s.  I spent over a week on practice problems and quizzes to make sure this memorization thing happened.  To many of my students, it became the focus.  Must. Memorize. Formulas.  Little robots being programmed to receive and compute.  Incidentally, North Carolina is the only state out of three in which I’ve worked that forces this upon students.

Why?  Why, in this new era of information and knowledge are we wasting our time trying to get mostly resistant students to memorize formulas that will be useful to them only very occasionally?  Again, it is very important that my students know how to use a formula (a tool) to solve problems; it is totally ridiculous to make them build a library of those formulas in their heads.  Many students have technology in their back pockets that allows them to, within seconds, find those formulas.  Those who don’t have the technology within arm’s reach are not far from a computer or iPad or other resource.  In the 21st century, forcing middle school students to memorize formulas is 20th century archaic nonsense.  It made sense for us, the old folks; it makes no sense now.

Second, why are my students wasting an entire block taking a test in class?  Of all the things they could be discovering, creating, synthesizing, inquiring about, performing, analyzing, solving, and collaborating and communicating on, why are they sitting in their desks, silently filling in bubbles?  I’ve challenged anyone to give me one example of a job where any student will be expected to take a summative assessment of their [test-taking] skills.  Other than the pre-employment skills tests, there is no such job.  No boss will come to an employee and say, “Mya, I need you to answer these 36 multiple-choice questions by the end of the day.”  Won’t happen.  Ever.

What will happen is the expectation that Mya can take on a complex task, use her reasoning and critical thinking skills, find the necessary tools to attack the problem, collaborate effectively with people to help her, and communicate the results of her work in an effective and legible manner.  This is what I want my students to do in class.  I want them to face real-life problems and use the skills they discovered (not rote memorized) to work through those problems.  After they’ve had a prescribed amount of time to come up with a solution, I want them to collaborate on a creative, engaging, and effective way to communicate their findings.

So, what about tests and quizzes?  Well, they are necessary for individual evaluation of progress and knowledge.  There is a place where these tests won’t interrupt the precious class time I’ve described above: the INTERNET!  I recently signed up for a free testing site where my students can take quizzes anywhere there happens to be a computer or mobile device with Internet access.  One question popped into my head while I watched my students begin to doze off mid-test: Why aren’t we all using this online testing miracle?

The question is rhetorical, I guess, since I already know the answers.  There are several excuses–some due to misunderstanding, some due to being stuck in tradition, and some due to unwillingness to break into technology.  What about cheating?  If by cheating we mean looking up or finding resources to come to an answer, I don’t understand the concern.  What about grading?  Well, most online test applications do that for you, regardless of the type of question, depending on the type of application you use.  What about the fact that not everyone knows how to use this type of assessment?  To put it bluntly, it’s time to learn.

My principal is always encouraging teachers to take on leadership roles using progressive teaching techniques.  Next year, my goal is to not only integrate the Internet into my math lessons, but to push this paradigm shift into practice.  Next year, my students will test online, using the technology available to them to seek the resources necessary to help them find relevant tools, and save our precious class time to investigate and use mathematics.


About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

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