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Do you Do Tests?

There is some very simple advice given to people who are considering taking drugs. It goes like this:

“Just say no.”

Here is some very simple advice for children who are confronted by teachers offering tests.

“Just say no.”

If only it were that simple. If only children had that much power. If only teachers gave them that much respect. If only teachers gave them the choice.

I think that teachers who impose tests on children are the equivalent of drug pushers. I’d even go so far as to say that it should be a criminal offence. The idea of ranking and classifying children disgusts me. How dare teachers take something as sweet and precious as young life and stuff it raw and bleeding through the sausage grinder of standardised tests, or any test for that matter. What gives them the right to do so? What gives them the right?

Just what is the purpose of a test, or rather what function does it fulfil? Putting aside the issues of ranking I guess tests are supposed to reveal what students know, but they usually do this by showing what students do not know. This is unnatural.

A baby exploring the world is learning through experience. It is the experience that shapes learning. The baby does not need a test to know what it knows. It is too busy exploring and learning. Moreover, the baby does not know that it is ignorant of anything. Ignorance is truly bliss. But once a child is confronted with the idea that they don’t know something they start to learn not knowing. They start to learn that there are right answers and there are wrong answers. The joy of learning becomes contaminated by doubt. It becomes contaminated by the fear of getting something wrong and the desire to be right. This is the creation of lack of knowledge. Children stop learning through exploring and instead start looking for the right answers.

In his piece Curtis suggests that testing and grading suppresses maturation. If this is the case for teenagers how much more so for children? Children are inherently more fragile and impressionable than teenagers and young adults.

What sense does testing children make? A group of children are exposed to some information and then tested to see if they have got it. This presupposes that the teaching is so effective it is possible for all the children to get the information. What’s the old adage? If the student performs well that’s due to the excellence of the teacher. If the student performs badly that’s due to the stupidity of the student.

Then there’s the concept of Multiple Intelligences. If this is valid then the concept of a single test for anything is absurd. For any given piece of information one would have to teach it in a multiple of ways and then have an equal number of tests.

But, I guess I’m missing the point. The real purpose of tests, like so much of school is to teach conformity. The purpose of a test is to teach that there are people in authority and they have the right to make people take tests. Not very useful, except for the people in authority.

So, let’s turn to something useful, and that is the idea of assessment. Targets and goals can help people to improve their skills. Knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses can help one to choose where to put effort, and also help one to assess how much more effort is required to achieve a particular objective.

With these thoughts in mind I often do one-minute challenges with elementary children learning English. I have created various worksheets, examples of which can be accessed from here. I never require children to use these sheets but rather offer them a choice to do some if they wish.

The important point for me is that each sheet has a place for a student to record a target. In other words students predict their own score before taking the challenge. Accordingly students are not measuring their performance against each other or against an external target, but rather against their own individual judgment of their ability. So even a score of 5% can be considered a success if it matches a student’s honest assessment.

It is important to point out that the challenges I make are self-referencing. By this I mean no claim for competence external to the challenge can be made. For example, I don’t think that being able to write out the alphabet in a minute will make children better readers and writers of English. But if improving one’s score is enjoyable children may end up doing more English which will probably help their English improve.

When I was at school in Britain there was an abomination known as the 11 plus. This examination determined whether children should be sent to the academic environment of the grammar school or to secondary schools where the emphasis was on learning vocational skills. I passed the exam and went to a grammar school. My brother failed. He was sent to a secondary school. Both schools were on a hill. The grammar school was at the top while the secondary school stood in its shadow. We could look out from the playground through a wire fence and see the other school below. Sometimes the boys would taunt each other and once or twice missiles were thrown. Fortunately my brother got into music. He became a drummer in a Boys Brigade band. He was able to transfer to a school that did music. His experience proved that escape was not impossible. But it was only by escaping that he had any real chance to pursue further education.

So by all means have some way of assessing whether individuals are competent to work on people’s teeth or drive cars upon the road. By all means make these assessments into tests but keep those tests well away from children. Keep that habit under control. Just say no.

November 2003
(Think Tank Column for ELT News )

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