Are exams a worthy form of assessment!?

Today we were having a discussion about exams and whether to keep an exam week for Grades 9 and 10. As you would expect there were very strong opinions for and against keeping exams from those that were in the discussion. I sat on the side of getting rid of an exam week because I feel that this form of assessment puts an end point on learning. Maybe that’s what is needed at the end of a stage of learning, but is that something that educators should encourage? Should we be encouraging students to think that learning has an endpoint? My observation is that too often exams are handed back with red ink on it and a grade at the top that shows what the student knew at that point in time. Rarely are students given a chance to re-sit to show that they have corrected the errors they produced or show they actually knew something that they weren’t able to communicate the first time. This is probably true of many of our types of assessment but the justification for our keeping testing has raised a number of questions for me:

Question 1: If the reason for continuing with an exam period in order to ‘train’ students for long exams, does a 2hr exam (or a series of them in a week) two years before the actual high stake exams you are training for actually enhance the students’ ability to sit a long exam better or does it just show them what they’ve got to look forward to (or dread) in future? If this does actually help, shouldn’t we be providing more opportunities to sit for 2-3 hours in the lead up to the high stakes external testing (in this case the HSC)?

Question 2: Do skills need to be tested under high pressure for us to gather information on whether our students know how to perform them? That may be the case if the normal performance of the skills is in a high pressure situation. Otherwise, shouldn’t we be giving the students an environment that gives them the best opportunity to show us what they know?

Let’s apply this to a sporting context. If I was teaching a student how to putt a golf ball into the hole. They get to practice it as much as they like before their test, but they’ll only get once chance to show me that they can make the putt. Under pressure they aren’t able to do it, so they get marked wrong. I can give them some marks for their working (or in this case their technique) but as they didn’t get the right result they can’t get full marks. Is that a fair assessment if they were able to get it write the majority of the time in practice? Isn’t this what a traditional test/exam does?

Question 3: If we set a testing regime, are we more likely to teach to the exam? Will this mean we just communicate content in order to give students something to study rather than educating them on how to learn, how to gather information and create something with the information?

Question 4: Is using tests just the easiest way of gathering a mark or grade to put on our reports?

As I’ve been writing, I’ve started to think, does the way I conduct other forms of assessment allow me to do things better? What do I need to change to give the students better information about what they know and what they can improve?

Does anyone have any definitive answers or research that gives answers to these questions? I’m open to suggestion and/or correction if my thinking is wrong.

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Assessment – the real start to your child’s academic growth!?

My wife picked up a parenting magazine today as we entered our local swimming pool as we took our son to his regular swimming lesson. As she flicked through it, the advertisement in the picture above, caught my eye. As a PE teacher, it was the picture that initially drew my attention and so I looked closely to see that it was an advertisement for an externally administered, standardised testing program. The tests typically take the form of a ‘bubble’ test that requires student’s to circle the bubble that corresponds to the correct answer. After they’re marked, students get a certificate that tells them whether they got a credit, distinction or high distinction. (I’m not sure whether the students who get in the bottom 10 percent get certificates, but maybe they’ve decided that that would be detrimental to a student’s well-being?).

The claim on the advertisement is “Assessment: The real start to your child’s academic growth”. Just stop and think about that for a moment. What’s it saying exactly? That until students’ are properly assessed they can’t achieve substantial academic growth until they are assessed. And, that that assessment is best done by a once per year multiple choice bubble test that is marked by computer?
It also claims that their tests help you (the parent) identify strengths, weaknesses and progress to support academic success. For this to occur, parents need to be given feedback saying what the student got correct, what they got wrong, where they can improve on. However, in a subject that requires particular skills to answer the question, how can a test that doesn’t require a student to show how they solved the problem give accurate feedback?
It makes me think, if parents need to rely on the information gathered from a once per year, standardised (mostly) multiple choice test to find out what their child’s strengths and weaknesses are then our school’s information gathering about student understanding and reporting on it is not doing it’s job.
On the other hand, are we (teachers) using these because it’s ‘good’ for the students to see how they compare to other students, then we need to consider whether learning is a competition in which we need to compare ourselves to one another and whether that is good for the well being of the students.
In his article “The case against grading“, Alfie Kohn sets out clearly how research has shown how detrimental grading is to learning – that it decrease the learners interest in whatever they’re learning, that they create a preference for the easiest possible task, that they reduce the quality of student’s thinking.
More and more I feel our number one priority must be to encourage students to become individuals with a desire to learn more, who enjoy learning and have the skills to do so. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get rid of grades or marks completely from our schools because we often have to collect information or prepare our students for their final leaving exams. Here in New South Wales, where I teach, that is the Higher School Certificate. However, we can take steps to minimise the number of grades that our students get and endeavour to give more helpful feedback to students that doesn’t provide judgement on their work but shows them what they’ve done well and what they can improve and what direction they can move in next.
In my classes, I’ve started using feedback forms that outline the areas of their work that they’ve shown they’ve shown they understand what they are doing and a section that sets out areas that they can still develop. Maybe this isn’t perfect but I’m trying to keep my feedback free from judgment. I also give students opportunities to re-submit (even on tests when we still have them) so that they have the opportunity to show what they actually know rather than using it to test their performance at that one moment in time.
Does anyone else keep portfolios of learning and give feedback rather than grades? I’d love to hear how you do it and what format you use, and what the advantages and disadvantages are as I seek to do it better.
Also, if you haven’t read any of Alfie Kohn’s work on grading, motivation and extrinsic rewards I strongly recommed you take a look. You can find a lot of his articles here.
Reference: Alfie Kohn (2011) “The Case Against Grading” http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/tcag.htm