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Testing Has Become A Dirty Word In Education, But Done Right Can Be An Effective Teaching Tool

 Testing has become a dirty word in education after years of state mandated standardized testing. But educators are finding creative ways to use assessments in the classroom.
Keith Freund
Testing has become a dirty word in education after years of state mandated standardized testing. But educators are finding creative ways to use assessments in the classroom.

The pandemic has fundamentally changed teaching and learning in the U.S.

When it comes to evaluating students, educators are re-evaluating the role that tests and quizzes have in the classroom.

As part of our Learning Curve series, we take a look at how testing has become a dirty word in education, and why it’s still essential to learning.

Jennifer Walton-Fisette is an education professor at Kent State University - she teaches teachers - and she has an unofficial rule in the classroom, “We don’t ever use the word testing.”

Instead, she prefers "assessment."

“If we use the word testing it’s more about the standardized tests,” Walton-Fisette said.

Learning By doing

State-mandated standardized testing is so loathed by teachers, students, school administrators and educators that the word "test" has become distasteful.

But should all tests be tainted by the same stigma?

That could be the case after the lockdown forced educators to rethink traditional teaching tools.

“I think the pandemic has gotten us to take a step back and saying what’s really important, what really matters, what should we be teaching and what should we be assessing on," Walton-Fisette said.

Shaker Heights High School, principal Eric Juli has taken tests off the table.

“I’ve absolutely deemphasized traditional assessments in every class this year,” he said.

He says there’s no way to fairly test kids who’ve spent a year in remote and hybrid learning.

Today’s teaching requires a different vocabulary, “And the language I’ve been using all year here at Shaker Heights High School is we need to shift to learning by doing.”

Students engage in hands-on projects, like German classes translating documents and letters from a Holocaust survivor.

“And that’s a far better way to assess learning than a paper and pencil test or in a pandemic a traditional Google doc test,” Juli said.

Walton-Fisette uses rubrics to facilitate hands-on learning.

A rubric is simply a list of criteria that lays out expectations.

She said it offers a clear set of goals for students.

"They should know exactly what's expected of them and what they're evaluated on," she said.

"I have a rubric for every assignment that they do," Walton-Fisette said.

Forget Testing, Try Retrieval Practice

But not every educator believes "test" is a four letter word.

UCLA cognitive psychologists Elizabeth Bjork and her husband Robert are pioneers in education research.

“Testing has become a dirty word to a lot of teachers and educators,” she acknowledged, but counters that testing remains a useful strategy.

That said, even the Bjorks have another word for testing.

They call it "retrieval practice."

Robert Bjork said decades of research shows testing, done right, can improve learning.

He said the act of retrieving information rearranges the architecture in the brain.

“When you recall something, you did more than just reveal that it was in your memory. It changed things,” Bjork said.

And learning, he said, is paradoxically linked to forgetting.

“As you recalled something you not only made it more recallable in the future, but made things in competition with it less recallable,” Bjork said.

He said done right, testing can ripen knowledge through cycles of forgetting and remembering.

The Bjorks recommend frequent, low-stakes tests, pre-tests, and quizzes.

Education researcher John Dunlosky agrees.

“Long term retention is going to be a function of initial forgetting and relearning until you’ve got it,” Dunlosky said.

Successive Relearning And Repeat

Dunlosky co-runs the comprehension and memory lab at Kent State University.

He also avoids the term "testing."

“I think students just get anxious when they hear that word,” he said.

Instead, he employs "interventions."

“You know mid-way through class I’m going to stop teaching and have each student turn to a partner and they have to explain to each other the last concept. That can be an intervention,” Dunlosky said.

He’s also a big fan of flashcards.

“So you have a prompt on one side. You get it right you take it out. You miss it you put it in the back. Simple,” Dunlosky said.

Every couple days, repeat it.

“The relearning is much less a struggle the second time, the third time it’s a lot less of a struggle, each relearning session you get a huge boost in your memory and knowledge,” he said.

Dunlosky said the key to "successive relearning" is for the information to sink in, then exert effort to recall it.

But when it comes to testing, “I wish we could come up with a different name,” he confides.

Dunlosky said testing is underutilized in teaching and learning, stigmatized by the awful association the word has earned.

This story is part of WKSU’s "Learning Curve,” a statewide multimedia collaborative looking at the challenges and opportunities facing public education in Ohio.

Copyright 2021 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.