Testing Schools

Parents want to be able to tell which elementary and high schools will be better for their children. Society wants to be able to reward good teachers and move bad ones into different roles. I don’t know how we should do that effectively, but I do know that what we’re doing now is a bad idea.

Today most schools make the students take tests every year. The results of those tests are reported and are used to compare schools against one another. The teachers have strong incentives to ensure that their students do as well as possible. This leads to a predictable bad effect: teachers teach students to do well on the tests, rather than teaching them something useful.

That would be fine if success on the tests equated to some metric of success in life. Unfortunately, they do not. Life outside of school is really nothing like taking a test. Children in school should learn a set of basic facts and they should also learn how to apply their knowledge, how to know whether they are right, and how to know when to seek more information. The tests are probably OK on basic facts, but they are terrible on the more important aspects of education.

I’ve always done very well on standardized tests: I have a good memory, I can focus well, and I’m good at figuring out not so much the right answer, but the answer which the writer of the test is looking for. That is, fairly early on I developed a meta-theory of tests which served me well. However, I recall an eye-opening experience in high school in competition to get on the Math Olympiad team. There were two levels. The first was a standardized test, which I did very well on—I think I was in the top 100 in the country that year, or something like that. The second was a set of freeform math problems to solve; I couldn’t solve a single one, or really even make any progress on understanding them. Actually doing math turned out to be very different from any multiple choice test. And it turns out that that is not exclusive to math: everything is like that. Everything.

Teaching students to do well on tests is not completely wasted time, as they are bound to pick up some real information along the way. But it’s definitely wasted time compared to the more useful work they could be doing.


  1. ilyak said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

    See also

  2. jf said,

    September 24, 2008 @ 6:34 am

    Coming from a different teaching culture (and starting work in a country yet again different), I can really hear you being able to “see” some shortcuts with the multiple choice tests even now sometimes face.

    Back in that country in Backwater Europe, some of us even made the concious decision to concentrate on getting more knowledge/practice acquired, even at the price of our scores (that are used to set thresholds of acceptance) being lower than general. It was basically a choice between easing your way to “get into” a respected university, or preparing for an easy “journey” throughout higher education. If this choice is not given, I can imagine you’re not happy with the result. Well, at least in the case when all education system is based on scoring tests the same way.

    The situation looks not entirely unlike a quota system to be used to distribute funds based on average beds used in hospitals for example. It just develops a system of hospitals best suited to generate more used beds than they need.

    If you don’t face different style of problems, just a single, not trivial, but somehow one-dimensional skill might be sufficient for most of the education. I’m wondering, which is more important, the (gradual?) change of shifting priorities (from simple scoring to creativity/actual thinking). Or just in demanding the latter the earliest time possible, even if too early?

  3. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    September 24, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

    ilyak: thanks for the link. That was a long but interesting read. I’m definitely in the school that thinks that the mark of a smart person is one who knows that there is an awful lot they don’t know.

    jf: as you probably know, in the U.S. these test scores are not used for college admission. There is a completely different set of tests used for colleges, and in fact some colleges are starting to move away from using them anyhow since they have little predictive value.

    I think the point of education should be teaching people how to think. I’m not sure whether that counts as a one-dimensional skill or not.

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