Instead of Opting Students Out of Tests, Teach Them to Take Tests Right

New York Times Motherlode Blog

By Annie Murphy Paul
Arguments in favor of standardized testing in schools usually cite the need to hold teachers and administrators accountable. But there is another reason to embrace tests, both standardized and in the classroom: They can help students to learn and grow.

Used correctly, tests can help students achieve three crucial aims: supporting student recall (tests force students to pull information from their own heads, enhancing retention); enhancing their awareness of their own mental processes (in the process of being tested and getting feedback, students fine-tune their sense of what they know and don’t know); and nurturing the noncognitive skills students develop from facing challenges (tests represent a kind of controlled adversity, an ideal arena for honing skills like resilience and perseverance).

In a perfect world, schools, parents and students would consciously treat tests as occasions for learning and growth, focusing less on the result and more on the powerful benefits of simply taking the test in the first place. But no matter how the school approaches testing, parents can help children at all ages use the experiences to learn about the material, about the process of being tested,and about themselves. Here are some strategies for getting the most out of the testing process.

Self-Testing: When students test themselves — using flashcards, a practice test or just putting down their notes and testing their memory — they employ the psychological principle of retrieval. Retrieval means producing information from one’s own memory, as opposed to passively taking it in. Retrieval fosters learning, bolsters retention and improves performance. Decades of research have shown that retrieval has myriad advantages over re-reading (students’ most common study strategy).

Spacing Study Time: Many students cram for hours the night before a test. They would do better if they spent a little time studying the subject every few days. Spacing self-tests every few days or once each week allows the student’s brain to partly forget, and then re-learn the tested information, with particularly powerful effects on memory.

Changing Things Up: Students often study in predictable ways, reading history or learning math problems in an orderly fashion that builds on the last item studied. But shuffling different types of practice problems into an unpredictable order — a technique called interleaving — means students don’t know in advance the sort of question they will encounter at each turn. Interleaving problems on self-tests gives students practice at a crucial skill: figuring out what kind of problem they are facing.

Study the Test: When graded exams are handed back, most students glance at their scores and stuff them away — missing an ideal moment of metacognition, which involves learning about oneself and one’s own thought process. To solve this, educators have come up with the exam wrapper — a set of brief instructions, printed on a piece of paper and folded around a corrected test. The instructions lead students through the process of reflecting on how well they prepared for the test, how well they performed and what they will do differently next time. (View a sample exam wrapperhere.)

Calming Test Anxiety: Before a high-stakes test, students often experience a quickened heartbeat, sweaty palms and butterflies in the stomach. They interpret these physical cues as meaning, “I’m nervous,” a message from their bodies that causes them to become even more anxious. A strategy called arousal reappraisal helps students take stock of their physical state and deliberately choose to think about it in a different way. Reinterpreting “I’m so nervous” as “I’m so excited” can allow students to turn their state of physiological arousal to their advantage. An expressive writing exercise can also help. Studies show that students who spend 10 minutes before a test writing about whatever is on their mind have less anxiety and perform better on tests.

The opt-out movement has encouraged many parents and teachers to aspire to a world without tests. But better than getting rid of tests would be turning tests into promising opportunities.

For instance, standardized tests could take the form of frequent, low-stakes exams instead of infrequent high-stakes ones. They could provide timely and detailed feedback on students’ answers to give them an opportunity to learn from the testing process. And results could be presented to students in a format that fosters a “growth mindset” using scores like Highly Proficient, Proficient and Not Yet, while offering opportunities to improve and try again.

After all, our children will face many tests over the course of their lives — as they proceed through school, as they apply to college or graduate school, as they enter a vocation or a profession. (Our budding doctors and lawyers likely won’t have the choice to opt out of the MCAT or the bar exam.)

Their lives will present them with other kinds of “tests” as well: tasks and projects that come with plenty of high expectations and pressure to perform. Testing them the right way now will give them a deep well of resources to draw on in the future.

The e-course I’ve developed, called Turn Testing Into Learning, offers step-by-step instructions that parents and teachers can use to implement affirmative testing. You can try out a sample lesson by clicking here; you can enroll in the course by clickinghere.

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One thought on “Instead of Opting Students Out of Tests, Teach Them to Take Tests Right

  1. I don’t disagree with most of the things that Ms. Paul says about testing, but in this essay she’s casually mixing up the question “Should we administer standardized tests to students?” with the larger question of “Should we administer any tests to students at all?” Saying yes to the latter doesn’t necessarily mean saying yes to the former. There are lots of legitimate reasons why someone might choose to opt out of a standardized test, and many of those reasons have nothing to do with any sort of objection to testing per se.

    In any event, regardless of what one thinks of Ms. Paul’s essay, it’s disappointing that she ends it by promoting her e-course. It ends up making her essay feel less like an honest discussion of testing, and more like an infomercial.

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