Testing Done Well

Here in the US, standardized testing for students has come under attack. In our recent NYC Democratic mayoral primary, the 3 leading contenders all disparaged “teaching to the test”.

I did my last two years of high school in Melbourne, Australia. The government there gave 3 hour exams in each subject at the end of the senior year. Those exams entirely determined which university you got into.

The reputation of each school depended very heavily upon their performance in these exams, and much of all 4 years of high school education was built around preparing us for those tests.

In the US, the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) tests, whose results can cost a teacher their job, are often graded by the teacher whose job is at stake. Not surprisingly, there have been cases of teachers cheating. In Melbourne, the graders were separate people hired by the government, who had no knowledge of which school’s, let alone which teacher’s, tests they were reading, guaranteeing impartial grading.

The Australian exams were never multiple choice. The answers were always to be in prose or working through the problem in algebra/calculus.

Another big difference between the Australian system and the American was that in Australia, 80% was an A, 70% was a B, and so on. The was instrumental – it allowed teachers to make 20% of the questions very difficult, requiring imagination and insight and out-of-the-box thinking, and still have a reasonable number of A’s, while American teachers, where 90% is an A, are constrained to asking only easy questions, which leads to a focus on rote memorization rather than a deep grasp of the concepts.

If it is possible to “teach to the test”, that is, spend time on something other than teaching the material as well as possible, and have that result in a better score, then that means the test is poorly designed and can be gamed. I didn’t feel it was possible to game the Australian tests, I saw my friends try, but it seemed to me that the best approach was to simply pursue mastery of the material. If the NCLB tests can be gamed, the solution is to improve them, not do away with them. It is possible for a government to create great tests – I’ve seen it done.

In the last 15 years or so, American education has widely adopted standardized tests. This allows comparison of performance between teachers, and between schools. This is great progress. Teachers’ unions hate it, but you have to remember that what they want is a return to the bad old days, when they had 100% job security, regardless of performance, with no accountability or meritocracy at all.

No country in the world is spending more per public school student than the US, and our results for all that money are abysmal. How can we possibly hope to improve the system if we aren’t measuring its quality in some way?