The Proper Role of Testing in Education


Testing in education is a hotly debated issue. Government mandated tests are much maligned by teachers, parent, and students. I’d like to offer some insight, as both a test engineer and a mom who has studied educational philosophy intensely.

I used to work as a software test engineer, before becoming a stay at home mom. When given the power to evaluate another engineer’s work as “pass” or “fail,” do you think it ever went over well to have the attitude of “This was a pile of crap! It fails!” Ha! No, it didn’t! The engineers, all adults, quickly rebuke this. As a software test engineer, my job wasn’t to evaluate the person or even the product as “good” or “bad,” but rather to work, side by side with them, to build a quality product. The internal tests were immediate feedback, from an independent person in a more robust lab, to allow the engineers to keep working towards a quality product, before delivery to the customer.

I propose this same attitude needs to be adopted when testing students. The test is a tool that the teacher has to aid in the development of the student. The test should not be an evaluation of the student. It should be an evaluation of teaching methods and how well they are working for the student. If a student fails a test, the first thought should be towards what training the child needs.

This is exactly as described by Montessori. Montessori is aimed at preschool and elementary aged children. Montessori goes through the Three Stages of Learning, the last of which are tests. Stage 1 ) The child is given information. Stage 2 ) The child is asked a multiple choice question about the information. Stage 3) The child is asked to recall the information without the aid of a multiple choice test. If the child doesn’t “pass” Stage 2, the teacher immediately stops asking questions or testing. She goes back to Stage 1 of presenting the information again.

The tests in Stage 2 and Stage 3 are also more than just tests. They serve as a healthy stress on the child. The child must use the information. It is integral to to learning that they go through Stage 2 and Stage 3. Just being given the information, without being asked to recall it or use it, doesn’t make the information stick. To give an example of this: It happens often that when a person is introduced to another person, the person may forget their name. That is unless they force themselves to recall that person’s name, immediately, on the spot, perhaps even writing it down.

When we tested the software, we also had this healthy stress put on us. We got to know the product well. We were then responsible for setting the product up at customer site. This practice helped us find problems and execute deployment more quickly.

When I read of stories of successful teachers, they all treat teaching/testing this way. One example is Donna Miller, who wrote The Book Whisperer. Her students all, yes all, pass state reading exams. (She is herself opposed to state exams, ironically.) Ms. Miller makes a passionate case that pleasure reading is the key component in high reading comprehension. Students are given time every day to read whatever book they want, wherever they want. She takes an assessment of her students’ reading levels. If any of them are poor readers, she recommends books at a lower reading level of their interest. As they accomplish reading book after book, something that is entirely achievable and gives them a feeling of success, they graduate to more complex books. Note what she doesn’t do: She doesn’t insult them; “tease” them; give them a test, highlighting their failure; or put them in an embarrassing “remedial” class. The realization that a student is doing poorly is simply a call for training, using an easier exercise than the child is currently capable of.

It is understandable why people are opposed to state testing. But if you are opposed to testing as such, I would encourage you to reconsider. It should be done in a way that gives you feedback that your child or student has correctly received the information. I admit I sometimes start presenting information, and then realize I haven’t built successful feedback into the testing approach. Thinking of testing as “feedback” perhaps resolves this entire issue.

As far as state testing: Given it is used in an evaluative way, with money hanging on the results, it is understandable people’s concerns. It does seem a bit absurd that if a school fails a test, funding is withdrawn, making progress that much harder–but I don’t want to discuss these politics too much, because I see the whole system as flawed. I am for free markets and I find it unthinkable that the government has this much control in education. Give people a choice and they will naturally choose the better schools with better results.

I want to reiterate that testing need not be evaluative. The engineers (adults) I described earlier quickly rebuked the idea that the tests we were performing on their product were an evaluation of them as competent or incompetent. For children, though, it is taken as plain simple fact that if they fail a test, it is an evaluation of who they are. It is part of the Positive Discipline framework to reject the idea that children are lazy or naughty. If they are failing a test, don’t dismiss them as lazy and unwilling to do homework. If they are failing a test, and you care, find ways to help them learn. Re-evaluate your entire approach to teaching. If you don’t care, then don’t. It’s up to you how much pride you take in the quality of your product–and that’s what testing is, quality.

What will be evaluative though is when you take this *supportive* approach, and your child then so happens to take standard tests, and knocks them out of the park. That is exactly the case as how happens in Donna Miller’s classes, previously described–with every. single. student. How is that for “No Child Left Behind”?

The major principle I had when testing was to test the product in the operational configuration. Everything mattered, including what Service Pack of the Operating System we were using. If I mimicked how the product will be deployed in its actual setting, most problems were ironed out before even first deployment. Of course, there is no test quite like the test of actual deployment.

What is the “Operational Configuration” that your child will deal with upon graduation? If they do need to learn physics equations, how and when will they use them? If you are discussing love, what lessons or what topics will help them as they soon start to date? I will add: The very ability to take an actual test may be a skill to develop. Many professions require passing an exam.

Let the operational configuration of life guide your teaching and your testing.

2 thoughts on “The Proper Role of Testing in Education

Leave a Reply