Another dot in the blogosphere?

Testing times

Posted on: October 16, 2013

I finally read a tab I had open for about a week: A teacher’s troubling account of giving a 106-question standardized test to 11 year olds.

This Washington Post blog entry provided a blow-by-blow account of some terrible test questions and an editorial on the effects of such testing. Here are the questions the article raised:

  • What is the purpose of these tests?
  • Are they culturally biased?
  • Are they useful for teaching and learning?
  • How has the frequency and quantity of testing increased?
  • Does testing reduce learning opportunities?
  • How can testing harm students?
  • How can testing harm teachers?
  • Do we have to?

The article was a thought-provoking piece that asked several good questions. Whether or not you agree with the answers is moot. The point is to question questionable testing practices.

I thought this might be a perfect case study of what a poorly designed test looks like and what its short-term impact on learning, learners, and educators might be.

The long term impact of bad testing (and even just testing) is clear in a society like Singapore. We have teach-to-the-test teachers, test-smart students, and grade-oriented parents. We have tuition not for those that need it but for those who are chasing perfect grades. And meaningful learning takes a back seat or is pushed out of the speeding car of academic achievement.

We live in testing times indeed!

4 Responses to "Testing times"

Yes yes. The problem with institutions is that, often the tail wags the dog. Learning is invisible; assessment merely tries to reveal a part of it.


You might have it the other way around.

Simply because exams tend to happen at the end of time frames does not make them the tail.

The assessment system might be the dog. The dog makes the tail stand, droop, or wag. The tail in this case could be schools and teaching practices.


Thanks for the reply and sorry for the lateness.
We might both be right. Let me see if I can argue this out.

From an administrative perspective, key exams (like PSLE & O-levels) do set the standard and direction for schools and teachers to cater their teaching to. In fact, they are vital in aligning our education system towards a common goal.
From a learning perspective however, it is the changes in the mind and body that matter. We are concerned with what the pupil has internalised. Assessment then becomes a tool for the teacher (and probably the pupil himself) to guess what has been learned.
My fear is that an over-emphasis on assessment tends to fixate students on the appearance of being correct, eroding the purpose of learning (kind of like a child saying sorry but doesn’t mean it). Also, no assessment can be perfectly reliable and valid, thus we can never make a perfectly accurate judgement of a child’s knowledge. So perhaps the entire subjective experience a child has gone through during learning is a factor we should look more into.
I guess at the end of it, balance is crucial in everything.


Let’s call a spade a spade. The intent of the type of tests I highlighted in my blog entry is to sort in a manner similar to quality control in an industrial process. When you dig deep into what you call the administrative perspective, sorting is what you find at the bottom of the hole.

I agree with assessment for and as learning. But that seemed to have emerged almost as an afterthought. These seemed to be luxuries we would indulge in only after the sorting process was prioritized. Ask yourself how often we do these diagnostics properly in school and then compare this with what happens at home or during tuition.

I also agree that there is an imbalance. Things are now so heavily tilted to sorting. It has, as you pointed out, shaped our culture. It is terribly harmful, as folks in the US are finding out.

But they are talking more openly about the issues and fighting against an industrial process being applied to what should be a human process. They talk and do from all levels. Ours is largely top-down. Both of us are talking here. Are we making a difference? 😉

I am not in favour of a balance. For me this is like asking me if I would like a balance of healthy and cancerous cells. I am in favour of a paradigm shift in assessment to one that is more about evaluation.


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