Thoughts about the focus on testing in education – after taking a test

Don't forget your hearty breakfast on test day!
Don’t forget your hearty breakfast on test day!

I took a teacher certification exam Saturday. It’s the second time I’ve taken a certification exam to add a field to my certificate in the past seven months. The great thing about the test I took today was that it was on the computer, so I was able to receive an unofficial score as soon as I finished. These two “high stakes” test experiences in the past couple of months have got me thinking.

I’m a really good test taker. I’ve done well on both of these tests with very little preparation. (I took  the GACE Science Broad Field 6-12 test in June, and the Technical Engineering test 6-12 today.) I studied a bit more for the science test and hardly at all for the one I took yesterday. However, I found I did really well on both tests.

The funny thing (okay, not really) is that testing was not a huge focus of my education in K-12. I took my fair share of tests – Standard Achievement Tests in elementary, SAT, ACT, and AP tests in high school.  However, the test was not the focus of my classes. Instead, my teachers taught me to think, how to learn, how to reason. I have great critical thinking skills and logical reasoning skills, and I know my experiences as a student helped me to hone these skills.

Today, our focus has shifted to “passing the test” or “exceeding the test.” In my state (Georgia) we are working towards a system that evaluates teachers based on student progress which will be mostly based on how well students perform on a standardized test. The test has too often become the main focus, and I think we’ve lost our focus. Do we want to raise a generation of awesome test takers with few other skills or a generation of students who can think and reason?

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]Do we want to raise a generation of awesome test takers with few other skills or a generation of students who can think and reason?[/pullquote] I kick my heels in whenever I’m asked to specifically review for standardized tests. I don’t like test-prep type questions or taking time just reviewing specific standardized test style questions. When I give a summative assessment for a unit in my class, I explain to students that their study guide is comprised of their notebooks, unit planners, and other resources provided during the unit. I do not provide a specific study guide. I have found that many students treat a study guide as a “study only” – forgetting to review all of the other material provided during class. Then they exclaim in frustration that something on the test was not on the study guide – even though we covered the material in class.

Instead, I focus on providing students with hands on activities to help them explore and discover content on their own. My goal is to show them how to think, how to ask good questions, and how to reason their way through material. I believe that if students understand the material and know how to think then the test results will be better than if we just taught specific test taking strategies.

I gave a summative assessment to my students last week. One of my students created his own study guide of the material and used this to prepare for the test. When I passed back the test, he was surprised that he made a 100% on each standard. I was not. He learned how to synthesize the material for himself and how to think through the material. This is the lesson I hope all of my students are learning. I will not teach them how to take a test. I will teach them how to think, and the rest will fall into place.