I’ve probably given hundreds of tests during my career, but the truth is, if I had the choice, I would never give my ELA students tests of any kind.
This is one of those things that has sort of snuck up on me over the years. For example, I used to give a test on The Odyssey, and then I started assigning a test and a creative writing assignment in which students write their own epic poems, and then I just dropped the test altogether. The epic poem assignment hit many of the elements that I wanted to test on, but it was so much more fun to read.
It has become clear to me that there are many many reasons why testing is problematic, but these are my personal reasons why tests suck.
Tests are boring to grade. I hate grading more than any other part of the job. But at least if I’m grading an essay or a story, I get to know my students a little better. There are very few times when I am grading a test that I learn anything about my students that I didn’t already know. And even if I give mostly essays on the test, when I have twenty five or fifty or eighty students writing on the same exact prompts, they all end up sounding the same.
I usually already know what they know anyway. When students ask me what they should expect on a test, I often tell them to take the average of their homework quiz grades and that will probably give them a pretty good idea of what their grade on the test will be. By the time the test rolls around, I am painfully aware of which students haven’t even cracked the book open, and I already know who has read and thought about every word in the book. I know who was engaged in class discussion and who just went through the motions for a participation grade. I don’t need a test to confirm any of that.
There are very few real world or 21st century skills assessed on a test. I know that sometimes people have to take tests for their profession, but for 99 percent of their lives, our students will need skills like innovation, original thinking, grit, and perseverance. If there is a way to encourage those attributes with a test, I don’t know what it is. I couldn’t care less if my students forget the name of Hamlet’s best friend or the difference between anthropomorphism and personification. But cooperative learning, creative writing assignments, units to teach growth mindset and the importance of hard work—that’s what they’ll need to tackle whatever the 21st century brings.
Tests encourage the memorize-and-dump mentality. I vividly remember walking around the halls of my high school with a bunch of terms in my head—the names of the Tzars or the parts of a cell or a list of vocabulary words—desperate to remember them long enough to regurgitate them on a test and then promptly forget them. When kids see the test as the end game, they have no reason to value the content enough to truly learn it.
Tests hurt my favorite kind of students. I’m not supposed to pick favorites among my students, but of course I do. And my favorites are almost always the workers—those kids who will do what it takes, no matter the time or the effort to get things right, the kids who take three times longer than anyone else to finish something, the kids who slowly, slowly improve and learn throughout the year. Those kids never do well on a test—the pressure is too much or the format is too quick. And their’s is the kind of attitude that I want to encourage, not punish with a bad grade.
Of course, the elephant in the room of any discussion on testing is the whole question of grades. In my ideal world, there would be no grades.
But I’ll leave that issue for another post.
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