There are many reasons why the education establishment doesn’t like school league tables – but the most most fundamental is that they rely on tests.

You may have heard the phrase ‘teaching to the test’, which encapsulates this idea that testing, especially standardised testing, artificially distorts educational priorities.

It’s an argument that sometimes finds favour with conservatives. Though we have little time for the ‘all must have prizes’ nonsense of the self-styled ‘progressive’ educationalists, we can’t help but notice the resemblance between the tick-box monitoring exercises that we condemn in other spheres and the standardised testing that is required of our schools.

However, in the New York Times, Henry Roediger makes a compelling case that testing is much more than a monitoring exercise:

“Testing as part of an educational routine provides an important tool not just to measure learning, but to promote it…

“Much educational activity, such as lectures and textbook readings, is aimed at helping students acquire and store knowledge. Various kinds of testing, though, when used appropriately, encourage students to practice the valuable skill of retrieving and using knowledge. The fact of improved retention after a quiz — called the testing effect or the retrieval practice effect — makes the learning stronger and embeds it more securely in memory.”

In other words there is no hard and fast distinction between memorising something and understanding it: they are mutually supportive activities – and regular testing helps with both.

“When my colleagues and I took our research out of the lab and into a Columbia, Ill., middle school class, we found that students earned an average grade of A- on material that had been presented in class once and subsequently quizzed three times, compared with a C+ on material that had been presented in the same way and reviewed three times but not quizzed. The benefit of quizzing remained in a follow-up test eight months later.”

Roediger is at pains to point out that a high-stakes exam at the end of the term or year is not what he’s talking about:

“Students in classes with a regimen of regular low- or no-stakes quizzing carry their learning forward through the term, like compounded interest, and they come to embrace the regimen, even if they are skeptical at first. A little studying suffices at exam time — no cramming required.”

It’s a long been argued that the use of super-stressed, one-off examinations helps to drive unequal educational outcomes by favouring students with an aptitude for last-minute revision or with parents able to afford private tuition. Placing a greater emphasis on course work was meant to redress the balance, but this has caused problems too – by compromising objectivity, facilitating plagiarism and favouring students with greater access to adult ‘assistance’.

Smart testing doesn’t entirely avoid the need for formal exams or for course work, but it does avoid their disadvantages.

Roediger writes that “testing is in some respects a quest for more rigor in public education” but that “we can achieve rigor in a different way” – one that has been shown to benefit “women and underrepresented minorities.”

There is an important lesson here for Conservative education policy. In rightly seeking to promote high standards we sometimes give the impression of always wanting to ‘go back’ to a non-existent golden age. However, it would make for better policy – and smarter politics – if we were to pursue and present the quest for educational excellence as a forward-looking endeavour. Certainly, we must be willing to stand-up for what earlier generations got right, but we must also seek to build upon that legacy, constantly seeking evidence-based improvements.

After all, you don’t get very far in education if you never learn anything new.

13 comments for: Heresy of the week: ‘Teaching to the test’ is a good thing

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