The True Purpose Of Testing

purpose-of-testingThe True Purpose Of Testing

by Marie Owens, M.Ed.,

Why are we fighting about tests?

The lively debate over assessment is an all-too-familiar one to many in the world of education and beyond.

Headlines shout about the unbearable testing pressure placed on the small shoulders of children, while simultaneously lamenting the high-stakes exam stress that educators must face year after year. While many of these debates will certainly rage on for the foreseeable future, one part of this battle should be re-framed for the benefit of all, remembering the true purpose of all of this testing.

What is the goal here?

When it comes to learning, it can be helpful to begin with the end in mind. So, to discover what we are aiming for when we test and measure, its helpful to ask a few questions:

What is the goal of this learning experience?

What knowledge will students need to demonstrate to show that they truly learned the material?

How will students be transformed by this newly acquired knowledge?

If educators and the “powers that be” can agree on the final goal of any educational exercise, then a crucial achievement has been made.  Although this sounds incredibly obvious, too often this step is bypassed and students, teachers, parents and administrators cant have a real dialogue about what constitutes “success” in the learning process. So beginning with the end, and definitively stating what the goal of any learning experience should be, can help ease the ambiguity of assessment’s role in the process.

So, what is assessment in this context?

Assessment now is not the endpoint, but the “measuring stick” we use to see how close we are to reaching our destination. And maybe even the way we decide to change course and focus instead on something far more important: deeper understanding of the material.

If we as educators start to think of exams and assessments as tools for “checking in” on the learning process then we can see if we are meeting our objectives. Exams, tests and formative assessments then become so much more than a measure of completion; exams become a tool for understanding how the learning process is progressing. If it’s not going as well as we had hoped, then it’s time to go back and try again. And again, and again if necessary.

Re-imagining Assessment

Increasingly, the availability of testing tools has been seen as a burden, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Assessments can be as ubiquitous as the morning warm-up or as familiar as a daily homework assignment and the benefits of this kind of shift are huge. If the goal of education is to encourage learning and foster understanding, then it makes no sense to see testing as the end product of the learning process. Like any process or development, teaching students should be a ongoing process of growth and measurement informed by the results seen in the past.

By re-imagining how we think of testing, we can best help students feel empowered in the process of examination. Ultimately we can remind them that the goal is not to merely maximize correct answers, but to demonstrate what they know, and focus on learning what they haven’t yet mastered.

Marie Owens, M. Ed. is the Director of Education for NEU Academic, a free, online exam creation tool for educators; The True Purpose Of Testing; adapted image attribution flickr user usarmycorpofengineerssavannahdistrict

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