Testing tests

Teaching is meant to help students learn, usually about a specific subject, but more broadly about social interactions, working in a team, under duress, about life in general. They say that your schooldays are the best days of your lives, but perish the thought I’ve never been one for clichés and that one smacks of sentimental notions about the good-ole-days, as far as I’m concerned. One aspect of institutional learning, the kind to which the vast majority of us have succumbed at some point in our lives is assessment, tests, exams, SATs, O-levels, highers, GCSEs, CSEs, K12 , degrees, vivas etc. Those are not part of the “best days” ethos, as far as most people are concerned.

But, what do we mean by “assessment”. According to Ana Paula Alturas of the Lisbon Business School and Bráulio Alturas of the Department of Information Science and Technology, ISCTE – Lisbon University Institute, writing in IJIOME, “Despite the good intentions of teachers, assessments always end up transmitting, essentially, information about the position of some students in relation to others, or identifying the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ students.” So, not necessarily a good thing.

Pressure groups are constantly applying, well…pressure…to the educational authorities either to increase the power of tests, to eradicate tests, to dumb them down and ease off student workload, or to un-dumb them up in order to raise standards to what they were “when we were at school”.

The Alturas team has examined the results when the same test is applied to assess two different groups of students (a group of graduate students in a post-graduate program and a group of non-graduate students in a post-secondary program) who were taught exactly the same content. The tests were designed so that neither group required prior knowledge of skills.

The team found that the average grade in the test among graduate students was almost 16, whereas it was just over 11 for non-graduate students. Female students averaged a smidgeon over 12, whereas males scored over 14 on average. In addition, the average grade of students over the age of 25 years old was almost 15, whereas it was two points lower for those under 25. Age and experience seem to be very important in how well a student does in a test, given that all volunteers had the exact same training for the tests.

The researchers suggest that this finding, which is corroborated by other studies highlights a fatal flaw in testing students and current teaching methods. “Considering that compulsory school should prepare students to continue their self- learning, the current form of assessment seems to us incompatible with this objective,” they explain. “It is in school that all favourable conditions for a prudent choice can be found: information about the world of work, information about themselves, about their possibilities, interests and values.”

Research Blogging IconAna Paula Alturas, & Bráulio Alturas (2010). Differentiation in the assessment between different groups of students: are experience and maturity more important than learning time Int. J. Information and Operations Management Education, 3 (3), 256-271 DOI: 10.1504/IJIOME.2010.033549

4 thoughts on “Testing tests”

  1. Really interesting–and good to know that these types of studies are being done. I have always tended to think that we should be teaching students to think, not to think within the scope of a written test and to learn to do well on a test. Good to see that hard data is being found to indicate perhaps other methods of assessment that more accurately assess knowledge and skills application should being explored.

  2. Were groups matched on intelligence? Otherwise, there is a clear confound in that graduate students tend to (on average) have higher intelligence than non-graduate students (I assume that means undergraduates?), and intelligence has been well demonstrated to be clearly related to 1) ability to learn and 2) ability to take tests. There are also motivational factors – who chooses to go to graduate school unless they enjoy learning, at least to a degree greater than undergrads?

  3. Unbelievable how small the blogosphere can be!
    This Alturas couple are friends of mine that I met when I lived in Portugal a few years ago.

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