Monday, September 13, 2010

Is it bad to give children frequent tests?

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.


gpc said...

Too many educators are critical of grades and testing because they are mistakenly concerned about competition or hurt self-esteem. I have always found this odd. Even, as a child, I always saw grades and tests as an indication of how well I was doing and how much more I needed to do. My self-esteem was never harmed. I never felt like I was in competition with other students.

I remember I used to always fail spelling tests in 4th grade. The teacher stepped in to help and with extra work, I started to score 100% on all of my tests. If I hadn't been tested and graded, I would never have know how I was doing. It would have been hard for the teacher to know what my weaknesses were and step in to help.

I'm wary of high stakes state and national tests for young children but I think regular classroom testing is a necessity. I would also like to see multiple tests required for graduation like most other countries do. It creates a strong incentive to learn and work hard.

Anonymous said...

I read "Testing the Chinese Way" and was surprised by the implication that frequent testing doesn't occur in U.S. school systems. My son is in third grade in a public school in southern California and has had frequent tests, quizzes, and "assessments" since first grade. Weekly spelling quizzes, reading comprehension, daily timed math facts ("mad math minutes"), math concept assessments . . . lot of tests. I agree that frequent testing helps kids learn and teachers teach, so long as it's presented as a regular part of learning and not something to be feared.

Anonymous said...

Assessments is a general term. There are formative and summative assessments. The purpose of a formative assessment is an aid for both the student and teacher. As teachers provide "learning targets" the students are expected to meet those targets. Formative assessments help the student and teacher know if the "target" is being met. If it's not, the teacher needs to figure out what the student is missing. This process of formative testing will prepare the student for the summative tests. In conclusion: Testing should be done FOR students, not TO students.

GPC said...

"Testing should be done FOR students, not TO students."

This is why I'm so wary of high stakes testing. It seems to be more about the schools than the students. Schools want high tests scores, so they pressure students to pass the tests. The sole focus of testing should be finding the strengths and weakenesses of each student, so they can have their academic needs met.

Anonymous said...

"I read "Testing the Chinese Way" and was surprised by the implication that frequent testing doesn't occur in U.S. school systems."

I live in Southern California too and I think testing is probably more widespread due to state standards and requirements. If the state wasn't creating the pressure, I think there would be far less testing done.

From what I've seen, educators and a lot of parents are very critical of the testing and state standards. They worry that poor results will discourage their children. But children aren't that delicate. And these educators and parents ignore the advantages of knowing where a child is academically.