Hey teacher, don’t carry out that class test tomorrow!

We all understand class tests as just part of schooling. They are normal and have always been the way of the classroom. Why challenge the idea of carrying out the class test? Surely it must be the right thing to do or we would not have done them for so many decades. But like anything, it is always worth reflecting and sometimes digging deep into the complexity of our habits such as classroom testing.

I have written a number of times about the unfairness, inequity, and unscientific nature of classroom testing. I thought here I would look at the more practical implications for learning and why most testing practice just doesn’t make sense or benefit the classroom in the first place.

What does a test achieve?

When I ask students the question: why do schools do tests? There are two similar answers I receive. Some say they are to find out how good I am, and some phrase it as “to find out who is best and worst in the class” Many teachers will argue that this is not necessarily the only thing testing is about and it is about planning future learning but 20 years of working and observing education says to me that this is more rhetorical than what takes place in practice. I also question whether the two common student assumptions above are ever achieved after a test. 

The normal test procedure

In my 20 years of teaching experience, the classroom test normally goes as follows:

  • Teacher informs class there will be a test.
  • Students do or do not revise for test.
  • Students do or do not have home assistance in preparing for test.
  • Students do or do not care about the approaching test (home/school influence)
  • Test is carried out in silence.
  • Teacher marks tests.
  • Students wait a day, or two, or three …
  • Teacher issues grades to students.
  • Students generally except grade as not surprising.
  • 90%+ Students understand they are not the best in class.
  • Teacher reviews one or two poorly answered questions with the class.
  • Class starts next topic.

This is the standard procedure because both teacher and students understand school’s primary role is that of ranking students to judge their potential and future academic trajectory. In this standard scenario the students do not see the test as a learning tool and so most do not explore any errors made because their grade/rank has been issued and the experience is complete.

Because tests act as a key indicator that schools are not about learning you will find that most students make very little progress (learn) in their time at school often gaining the same grade in consecutive tests. My favourite example of this lack of progress was confusing teachers by asking them to point to which example science-inquiry boards were produced by Grade 7 or Grade 12 students – many were not sure. I recently quoted the same understanding from a 13-year-old who said “school is not about learning it is just about short term memorising.” 

It is important for teachers to recognise that if school does not feel like a place of learning and personal progress, the majority of students will not be found exploring their errors and looking for improvements. A large percentage of the students I have spoken to over the years have stated the infamous “as long as I pass I don’t mind” mantra. 

Don’t throw away your tests … re-purposed them for learning.

I once had a long chat with an award winning maths teacher. In his learning environment (I use those two words very deliberately) tests were readily available with their answers for all students on demand at the side of the room. Students got into the habit of testing themselves at appropriate moments, removing all sense of competition with others (the most damaging element of the education system – If you want to claim that it’s about learning). All the conversations between teacher and students were conversational and focused on learning and personal progress. Nobody in the room was cheating because nobody could cheat, you would only be cheating yourself and know you were less prepared for any formal assessments. The learning environment was positive and happy because the learners felt it was personal, meaningful and progress was felt and visible to them.

Switch grades for progress

We are lucky here in New Zealand because our national education system is based on a continuum of eight learning levels in each discipline as you progress through your school experience. It is within the power of any classroom teacher to create for themselves and their students a similar progress orientated environment. 

Take the lowest and highest achieved indicators that might be displayed in your classroom and map it out on the wall as indicators of progression that all students can personally respond to. This visualises is learning and adds intrinsic motivation with the focus of just reaching the next step on the journey.

Ditch the test

If you look at the bullet point list above and bear in mind bullet points two, three, and four, you will understand that there is much complexity in what Impax the grade any student gets. This video explains the unscientific nonsense of testing and exams. If it is the case in most classrooms that I can predict the girls will outperform the boys before you have even written the first question of your test, you have to question exactly what are you measuring because I can’t tell you it is predominantly not the content information or innate skill set of the students you are testing.

I politely ask any teacher I meet to never hold a class test ever again but understand that self-diagnostic testing can a key part of their strong learning environment.

… and imagine … no marking !!