Opinion
Education Opinion

Assessing Assessment

By Walt Gardner — September 30, 2013 2 min read

Is there a compelling argument that can be made in favor of frequent, short tests? If you believe in what is known as the “testing effect,” the answer is a resounding yes (“Tests Make Kids Smarter. Let’s Give Them More,” The New Republic, Oct. 7). That’s because test taking “bulks up the brain’s neural connections and may force the brain to create multiple, alternative retrieval routes for accessing the same piece of information.” Research shows that students also fare better when they are required to apply the concepts on which they were tested to completely new contexts.

These are provocative claims that deserve attention because there is just enough truth in them to make them appealing. As a result, they will be cited to justify the direction schools are moving. In fact, they will likely accelerate it. Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, goes so far as to propose hiring subject and test-writing experts to develop “10,000 short-answer and multiple-choice questions in each academic area.” The questions, along with the answers, would be posted on the Web to be used by teachers and students. Emanuel says that the sheer number of questions would make it impossible to prep for through sheer memorization.

The latter claim is undoubtedly true, but Emanuel fails to understand the difference between teaching toward a test’s actual items (e.g. the 10,000 questions) and teaching toward the broad body of knowledge and skills that a test’s items represent (e.g. writing a persuasive essay on an unfamilar topic using evidence to support a thesis). The first strategy is ethically indefensible, regardless of the number of items. The second strategy is sound pedagogy. Every effective teacher consciously or unconsciously structures lessons accordingly. The higher the objective in terms of difficulty, the greater the need for appropriate practice followed by constructive feedback.

The reason “how to” books in any field sell so well is that they promise a surefire recipe for success. But they invariably disappoint because anything worthwhile mastering cannot be mastered by reading a series of questions and answers. If that were not the case, schools would be turning out distinguished scholars by the thousands. I’m not anti-testing. It is an indispensable part of the learning process. But not all tests are able to distinguish between students who have been taught well from those who have been taught poorly in achieving the highest cognitive objectives.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Data Analyst
New York, NY, US
New Visions for Public Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read