What Alternatives to Standardized Testing?

Standardized testing is still considered the most effective way of holding schools and systems accountable. However, these tests often fail to measure many learners' skills and creativity. 

In this EduDebate, education experts examine different assessment approaches that can strengthen student motivation, improve learning outcomes and encourage more creative teaching and learning, without jeopardizing accountability.

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This may not be the best time to argue for educational testing. In the recent history of the United States, No Child Left Behind laws caused quite a ruckus among some educators who believe they are forced to teach to the tests. China, seemingly polar opposite of the US in its educational system, has also wrestled for decades with the notoriety of tests, especially the high-stake National College Entrance Examination, known to the Chinese as the “gaokao”. Elsewhere in the world, similar sentiments abound.

Testing deserves its bad press if it reduces education to the dog wagged by its tail. Test-driven educators may focus narrowly on preparing students to get good grades in high-stake tests, ignoring other significant realms of students’ minds and lives.  Schooling then gets in the way of a rounded education. Teachers may teach to help learners store knowledge in short-term memory to prepare for an important test, after which students may forget everything. This happens when tests are summative assessments of individuals, without providing feedback for effective learning. 

Testing becomes an asset when it participates in teaching and learning throughout the process, instead of simply providing a closure at the end. Findings in cognitive sciences support the use of testing, or quizzing, as an effective learning strategy. When testing is out of the picture, learners may resort to strategies such as re-reading, underlining and note-taking, which psychologists say are least effective (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013). A student reading the same material over and over again, without some testing in between, may simply have an illusion of knowing. Testing helps students come to their moments of truth -- they get feedback that tells them whether they have indeed learned the material. Teachers may use test results to develop a more granular and nuanced understanding of learner receptiveness and comprehension. They could then adjust instructional strategies accordingly. 

Providing feedback through testing used to be a long and difficult process. By the time teachers finished grading tests on paper, students would have forgotten what they had chosen. Technology can significantly shorten the cycle. With online standardized tests, computer systems do the grading and provide standardized feedback. Liberated from the drudgery of manual grading, teachers could spend more time and go to greater depths working directly with students.  

With online testing, students immediately see the results of their quizzes while memory is fresh. Learning management systems also make it possible to have multiple attempts for tests. Students develop greater mastery by taking advantage of the iterative studying-testing process. If students become aware of the power of quizzing and testing, they may also take the initiative to conduct “self-quizzing” as a way to learn. Mobile applications such as Quizlet, Duolingo and Brainscape can all help students to learn.  

Yes, there is the cheating factor to consider when tests are taken on a computer or mobile device, but it is my observation as a longtime instructional designer that such likelihood is not necessarily higher compared to paper and pencil tests. Human nature is not in a worse condition in the present time as far as testing is concerned. With greater ease of cheating with technology comes better tools to detect cheating. Educators can gain insights into student behaviors and performance with data analytics that are fairly easy to harvest, using tools designed for the average user. 

Technology-enhanced testing also opens doors to opportunities of disruptive innovation in the teaching profession. Using class response systems in a large classroom, teachers can now have almost immediate feedback about student mastery of concepts or skills. Teachers can also develop flipped classroom experiences to move lectures online, while reserving class time for assignments, tests and hands-on activities which may require more feedback between students and teachers.   

Remember, too, that testing can still do a legitimate job of separating those who have learned and those who have not. If someone has proven to master certain content through initial screening tests, why would we force this individual to study with the rest of class at exactly the same pace? From here, we may embark on the journey for competency-based learning in which we learn we have to learn.     

Assessment, Learning (Blended, Personalized, Formal, Informal), Education Technology

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