A Personal Account of a Standardized Test
â€śFrom first grade through at least the beginning (and often the end) of the undergraduate years in college, standardised and short-answer tests â€“ and the mentality that they promote â€“ are dominant. Students are tested not on the way they use, extend, or criticize â€śknowledgeâ€ť but on their ability to generate a superficially correct response on cueâ€ť (Wiggins, 1993, p.2).
One instance of this type of testing that stands out most in my mind is when I was working for an IT training company in London, England. Part of their training program was the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) program and naturally the company wanted their trainers to be certified on the program as well. My training program involved me sitting at my desk and memorizing hundreds of multiple choice questions over several days, then being put in a small secluded room where a computer asked a selection of the questions that Iâ€™d drilled into my head. After passing the ordeal I was then thrust in front of a class to teach computer networking concepts. Did I have a clue what I was teaching? Of course not! Nowhere in my training program did I see any of the network components I was subsequently teaching and at no point did anyone discuss these concepts with me.
Now this is poor teaching to an extreme level. I hope that nowhere in our schools do we give kids a binder of questions to memorize. But the overall drive behind the exercise was similar to our standardized testing: the company was not concerned with my in-depth knowledge of the material, they wanted me to get the certificate as quickly as possible and move on to the next one. (This mentality was puzzling to me as a greater in-depth knowledge surely would have made me a better trainer, nonetheless this was their approach.)
â€śConventional testing cannot tell us, then, what we need to know... namely, whether the student is inclined to be thoughtful and able to be effective.â€ť (Wiggins, 1993, p.9). While teaching my courses I was frequently stumped by questions from my students. My learning came when I took those questions to my manager and he subsequently explained and demonstrated topics with me. The certificate from Microsoft that Iâ€™d earned the previous week seemed meaningless in reflecting my actual knowledge and ability to use the subject matter.
I think all stakeholders in education need to be reminded of what purpose a particular test is serving. Is it to assess and develop our studentsâ€™ education, or is it to quickly stamp our students with a superficial grade â€“ for better or worse. â€śBecause a test, by its design, is an artifice whose audience is an outsider, whose purpose is ranking, and whose methods are reductionist and insensitiveâ€ť (Wiggins, 1993, p.7).
Wiggins, G. (1993). Assessing student performance: Exploring the purpose and limits of testing. Jossey-Bass Inc.