Argument: are exams bad for children?

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Argument: Are exams bad for children?

Teachers Stephanie Schneider and Matt Christison discuss.

Stephanie - YES

Another teacher made this comparison with standardized testing: it’s like checking to make sure a plant is growing properly by, again and again, pulling it up from the ground and checking the roots. When that plant is back in the earth, it is not the same. It is shocked by what has happened.

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YES: STEPHANIE SCHNEIDER teaches three- to six-year-olds at a public Montessori school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US. She is also an active member of the Educators Network for Social Justice (a teacher activist group), and is on the Executive Board of her union (the Milwaukee Teacher Education Association).

We know better ways to grow plants, and we also know better ways to assess children. Good ways of assessment can give us meaningful information that helps students to learn. Tests are often more like a punishment.

If we want children to succeed in school, we need to give them an education which is relevant to them, with good quality teaching. It is sad that more class time is used for exam preparation and administration, because there are more standardized tests. This means there is less teaching.

If we want success for ALL children, we need to know that the testing that goes on now does not help racial and economic inequalities. It makes these inequalities worse. Often, in the US, the information from these tests is used to support political action that is bad for schools in poor areas and in black communities.

Finally, the strongest evidence that tests are bad for children is the reaction of parents, teachers and students who see negative effects directly. They are protesting against the test and refusing to have them.

Matt - NO I am a teacher and a gardener, and I agree that pulling up plants – and students – is not good. But examinations, especially standardized tests themselves, are not bad – like examining in detail the growth of a plant is not bad. What is bad is how we use examinations and how we don’t understand standardized testing.

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NO: MATT CHRISTISON is a high school principal and teaches graduate studies at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has always questioned things. He got a Doctorate of Education in 1996 from the University of Calgary, (with an analysis of gender performance differences on standardized testing).

Good, standardized tests are valid and reliable. If they are reliable they will be similar for students in the same grade or taking the same course, in a similar or the same time or form. Standardized testing is good at giving descriptive information which can be useful for well-trained and well-prepared teachers.

But this does not happen with a lot of the descriptive information we get from well-constructed tests. This can be used to work out the next steps for student learning, but is often not used because of the problems in education not enough time, the need to rank students and schools in order, and unfairness.

We need a combination: standardized testing to describe and diagnose (without the negative side of people who try to sort, restrict and punish); together with very good, continuous assessment of learning. If we want success for ALL students, then we must use ALL forms of assessment for their proper purposes. We must not use them for our own plans, or reject them because we do not like or understand them.

Stephanie - YES

You could say standardized tests don’t kill education; it is the use of these tests that kills education. But I think it is not useful to separate the use and intention. I use these tests now in the classroom, and even if the tests were of better quality, I still see many problems with the way testing gives more importance to some skills than others.

I have to give my kindergarten students the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test three times a year. Each time I explain this test is very different from what we do in the classroom. But children always try to help each other and I have to tell them: ‘You must not help your friend with that problem.’ I have to give the children this test that says individual achievement is the most important thing, and they are not allowed to learn together.

These tests do not make my teaching better. I am not allowed to see the test before or after, so any information from it is not useful.

I don’t think it is idealistic to use contextualized assessments – if the teacher is not trained or experienced, they need more training, not standardised tests.

Assessment for other purposes should be given only to a few random students only in certain grades. This can give us good information, but not use too many resources and too much time.

Matt - NO

All assessment – standardized testing and teacher-based classroom assessments – are subjective. The focus of the test (creativity, maths, r eading, neatness, working together, risk taking) gives a clear (and often damaging) message to students, parents and teachers.

I agree with your criticism of standardized testing. The politics and wrong uses of standardized testing have a bad effect on the daily work of teachers and learning in schools.

But it is not good to reject standardised testing. This is no better than saying it is the solution to all education problems. What we must have is a balance, to learn all about students learning in schools: how they work with others, how they work alone, how they create, how they try and experiment. We need to assess learning with as many good forms of assessment as possible.

It is not likely that standardized testing will disappear. So we all need to learn what we can from it, and fight against the wrong uses. Basically it can give us descriptive information to help inform practice and support learning.

Stephanie - YES

It is not difficult to imagine school with no (or minimal) standardized testing, because there are some already. Some of the best private schools have very few standardized tests. Also, in Finland, a country where many people say the education is very good, they do not use many standardized tests. So there are places where teachers are trusted to educate students without relying on a standardized test.

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Are standardized exams good for students? (Jake Lyell/Alamy)

But I think it’s good that you are trying to stop the misuse of the tests. I wouldn’t think the tests were so bad if they gave us good information instead of punishing and rewarding. If we had tests like that test I would like a few extra things from them.

First of all, a standardized test should not make a profit for a business. I would trust a test a lot more if I knew that no-one was making money from something that could be bad for my students or school. Second, the test should have a clear purpose and not be used to decide a school’s funding, a teacher’s job or a student’s future. And finally, a test should be controlled to check if it gives advantage to certain groups.

Matt - NO

The ideal is for you and I, and others, to work together so that the forms of assessment we use can give the best information to support student learning. This is unlikely to happen soon, so I would add these to your extra points.

First, standardized testing would be done outside of schools. Like in Finland: students take the standardized tests when they are ready, after doing all the courses they need. They take the examinations in community centres. The test questions and answers are published the next day for all community members to see and talk about. So the standardized testing would be open to all types of analysis.

Second, standardized testing would be voluntary. People who want to use the results would pay for the costs of administration, creation and development. So we would know who wants to use the results, and their intentions would be clear and connected directly with the testing. Everyone would know if the results were used to enter university, or rank schools in order or other purposes.

Maybe this is idealistic, but I know that open discussion about assessment and standardized testing will bring improvements for students, learning, teachers and the community.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/sections/argument/2013/07/01/exams-argument/