Testing the regime

So much of our education has relied on tests. Every single person on the face of the earth who went to school, or finished university, or even got their driver’s licence, has sat some form of test. This means sitting on your own with a test paper, answering various types of questions within a time limit. I would go so far to say that we cannot perceive anyone being good at anything unless they were tested on it.

Since reading this very interesting article two days ago by Professor Peter Nonacs on ‘Why I let my students cheat on their Game Theory exam‘ my thoughts on testing have been stirred again. What makes this experience with Nonacs’ students in Behavioural Ecology at UCLA so interesting was that it was time spent reflecting on the purpose and function of testing that led him to take a different approach. It was also probably the fact that the course he was teaching challenged and observed systems and patterns that had him thinking in this frame of mind. His revelation that “life is games” is profound. It is in our nature to respond to challenges and circumstances differently and diligently, depending on the established environment. Needless to say, his students were pretty perplexed. After all, how could we find out if people are good at anything if they don’t take tests?

Across the world education is being strangled by tests. Tests that provide huge amounts of data. The data-nerds are having a field day with all that information gleaned from tests. Politicians and governments are lapping up comparative results and and ranking data sets as if testing meant everything in setting education policy – it’s like the Cold War of Tests. Sure I love numbers and data too, especially if it’s presented in one of those funky infographic or visualization mediums, but we are so easily blinded to the simplicity of statistics (once they’ve been explained to us!). Governments have created curriculum systems that can almost only be measured by testing in standard and standardised ways, thereby crippling the emphasis on social, emerging and creative intelligences; the very things that education is most often held to account for.

So what would happen if you stopped testing children at single tables, on their own, repeatedly throughout the year? Well anarchy surely? My god, how would we ever know how a child can apply themselves if they aren’t forced to regurgitate an answer within a set time? How would we ever complete our reports? For all the talk of the wonders around formative assessment, testing is still the ‘summative’ cop-out for not having the rigour in place. Furthermore most of these¬† ‘official’ tests (for VCE, high-school, NAPLAN) are never seen by the teachers, let alone the students. Even then the results come so late, that passing or failing becomes ‘oh well’ or ‘oh yeah’. By contrast some of the most compelling strategies about effective testing means reducing the feedback loop to zero; there being no lag between answering and getting a response on your progress. Leading educator Alan November has often shared these approaches within a wider system of how schools need to reform. The problem is that assessment, ironically, is always the last thing to be considered in curricula reform; sometimes deliberately.

Tests are here to stay, let’s face it. The conception and execution of them on the other hand is up for rewiring though. Just like Nonacs’ lesson on Game Theory, the notion of how a test plays out can be flipped on its head slightly. It could start by letting students bring their textbooks or novels into an exam. It could shift to having students creatively collaborate on their tests; with the right kinds of questions. It might mean the test being highly practical, or being extended over a period of time to allow depth, much like a game. Or it could simply mean letting students bring every know laptop or device into a test, and let their ability to apply and navigate the device be one measure, while their digital literacy and strength of networks be another in ensuring their responses are unique and efficient. Which is the outcome Nonacs’ class was heading to, and an outcome that some innovative schools are tackling too. In these environments anarchy doesn’t reign at all; new skills and new forms of sharing emerge and new types of respect are formed.

Of course the maths and hard-core science groups would baulk. They’re the same ones who screamed and tried to block Wolfram Alpha when it appeared on the scene. Actually the real push of this regime of testing sweeping the globe is probably the result of the hard-core education traditionalists when they discovered the internet [sounds good, but no]. All these embedded systems¬† and curricula, trying to keep everyone honest by making sure only you, the test paper, and a pencil define the capacity of your brain. Maybe if I were an artist this would make sense; and I’d probably come up with a creative way to illustrate the test too.

As educators we have to be better at the process of testing and better designing tests. Thirteen years of school is a complete waste of time if all we’re doing is preparing kids for a couple of exams, so that some might get a chance to go to university. Ironically, it’s universities which are looking at testing with fresh eyes. Their systems of educational accountability are different. If there was a ‘NAPLAN for university’ you’d see otherwise.

I’m fearful where all this testing will lead and the fake systems of accountability they create. I’m fearful that teachers won’t have the courage or the energy to come up with alternatives. Many others have grappled with the challenges tests create at the very core of what an education means, and like others, traditional tests died the moment my phone could Google the answer.