Two recent New York Times articles fly in the face of conventional pop psychology and educational philosophy.
An article in last week's Science Section on study habits cites cognitive science research indicating that the act of taking a test can enhance learning:
The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.
As Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis puts it, “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it.”
Next we have a front page article in this weekend's Week in Review on Testing, the Chinese Way, written by Elisabeth Rosenthal, whose children spent a year at the International School of Beijing where "taking tests was as much a part of the rhythm of their school day as recess or listening to stories." Citing personal experience, Rosenthal argues that:
>Young children aren't necessarily aware that they are being "tested."
>Frequent tests give children important feedback about how they are doing.
>Frequent tests offer a more meaningful way to improve self-esteem than frequent praise does.
On this past point, Rosenthal cites Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
Professor Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better."
Cizek's overall take on testing in schools? “Research has long shown that more frequent testing is beneficial to kids, but educators have resisted this finding:”
Rosenthal concludes on a particularly powerful note:
When testing is commonplace and the teachers are supportive — as my children’s were, for the most part — the tests felt like so many puzzles; not so much a judgment on your being, but an interesting challenge. It is a testament to the International School of Beijing — or to the malleability of childhood memory — that Andrew now says he did not realize that he was being tested. Will tests be like that in a national program, like Race to the Top?
When we moved back to New York City, my children, then 9 and 11, started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical. They didn’t last long. It turned out they had come to like the feedback of testing.
“How do I know if I get what’s going on in math class?” my daughter asked with obvious discomfort after a month. Primed with Beijing test-taking experience, they each soon tested into New York City’s academic public schools — where they have had tests aplenty and (probably not surprisingly) a high proportion of Asian classmates.