Friday, January 01, 2010

Using Elastic Yardsticks, Part 1

Last night I was talking to a woman named Lucy whose son is a good student, but struggles when it came to taking tests, especially the multiple-choice parts.

As a student, the opposite was true for me. My grades were decent, but my scores on the standardized tests were always higher, sometimes significantly higher, than one would expect based on my classroom work. I especially loved taking multiple-choice tests. It was like a strategy game to me. By the time I was a sophomore in college I had boasted about my skills so much that a friend challenged me to take his biology test, a subject I’d never studied at the college level. It was one of those anonymous 200-person survey courses so an extra body wouldn’t be noticed, and since the results were being tied to social security numbers and run through a computerized grading system we figured we could get away with it. I didn’t beat my friend as I’d threatened, but my 81 put me in the upper fifth of that class of students who had presumably attended the lectures, read the books, and studied.

When I offered to teach Lucy’s son some test taking techniques, she laughed and said that they had already hired a “testing tutor” to learn some strategy.

As a guy who enjoys games, puzzles and sports, I’ll never find fault with learning to think strategically, but obviously there’s something wrong here. As I understand it, the fundamental purpose of academic testing is to assess and benchmark the acquisition of knowledge. Clearly the multiple-choice test is, at best, a flawed measuring tool if some bonehead journalism major can ace a biology test and there are people making careers out of coaching kids to pass them, regardless of subject. They're like using elastic yardsticks.

But to be honest, I didn’t just game the system on my college multiple-choice tests. I also figured out that when a professor is faced with grading a stack of essay tests, she places a high priority on things like organization because a well-ordered piece of writing, whatever the content, is simply quicker to grade. I found that I could almost always raise my grades by as much as a full letter, simply by writing what appeared to be a tiny outline in the upper right-hand corner of the first page. It would look something like this:

I.     Intro.
II.   (Buzzword lifted directly from the question)
III.  (Buzzword lifted directly from the question)
IV.  (Buzzword lifted directly from the question)
V.   Conclusion

This gave my teachers the impression of an orderly, well-considered answer right off the bat. I also made a point of not just regurgitating the key words, phrases and concepts I remembered from lectures verbatim, but also underlining them to make it easy for the grader to find them. I’m pretty sure there were some professors who never even read my essays, but instead just put checkmarks by these convenient highlights and scrawled, “Well organized!” across the top of the page.

My test-taking strategizing was all-inclusive. For instance, I rarely participated in my classes unless it was explicitly required. As I saw it, every time I raised my hand to answer a question, I was giving something away to my competition. After all, we were being graded on a curve and it could only hurt my grade to share knowledge with my classmates. If I had a question, I always saved it for office hours so that the professor’s answer only benefited me, and not the rest of those yahoos against whom I was being judged.

None of this had anything to do with education, of course, but rather about running up the score. Since the lion’s share of my grades were based on testing, my college grade point average went up sharply over what I’d done in high school, where more of my grades had been calculated by a teacher’s far more meaningful and accurate personal evaluation of what I’d actually learned.

Fortunately, during my junior and senior years I was in smaller classes that didn’t rely so much on testing and actually learned something.

I continue to be a skeptic about testing of all kinds and especially the standardized, high-stakes academic testing being used in our public schools. I know they’re probably out there, but I’ve yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t resent these tests, especially when the scores play such an disproportionate role in the academic lives of their students, as well as their own careers. If the people I talk to are representative, the phenomenon of “teaching to the test” is a real one, causing great teachers to forego what they know is best for their students in favor of becoming glorified “testing tutors.” Teachers know that doing well on tests is to a large degree a kind of trick that can be taught, but doesn’t really have much, if anything, to do with actual education.

I’ve never met a teacher who got into education for the fame or fortune. Every single one of us chose the profession because we genuinely believe we have something to offer to children. Our political and governmental leaders keep telling us that public education is broken and they’re right, but more testing, incentive pay, charter schools, and the rest of those business-style solutions are not the answers.

(This post is already too long. Tune in tomorrow for the rest of the story.)

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Eternal Lizdom said...

This is absolutely FASCINATING reading!!!

Deborah Stewart said...

Why don't you tell us how you really feel:) I am enjoying your strategies on test taking. I agree, a test doesn't really evaluate your knowledge it merely test your skills at taking tests.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

Great post so far and SO true. I'm off to read part deux!

carlylennox said...

I was always the opposite Tom, so much better at class assignments and coursework throughout the school year than at taking horrible tests. And I know why. Having to express my knowledge and opinions in a timed essay put so much pressure on me that it dulled my creativity and ability to think clearly. Your idea about summarizing in bullet points at the top corner of the paper is so simple, but would have really helped me to stay focused. I wish my teachers had spent more time teaching about exam techniques! Great post.