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Bitter Lessons from Chasing Better Tests

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The flaws of testing and accountability are failing our students and our society. Those failures include:

"¢ A culture of testing perpetuates the misconception that teaching and learning somehow exist within an educational vacuum--as if the lives of children are suspended when they walk through the doors of school. Accountability principles that hold people accountable for conditions beyond their control will always fail, but that is what we do in education.

"¢ Test data are never a pure representation of learning. A test score is impacted by effort of the student, quality of the test, conditions of the testing day and time, and a number of other factors that have nothing to do with learning. Multiple-choice tests, as well, are always impacted by guessing.

"¢ Teaching to a test and seeing learning as a static body of knowledge is the lowest possible vision of teaching and learning. A basic argument of John Dewey that we have failed to see in this country is that education can never fully anticipate what any student needs to know, but schools can prepare children to be expert learners, something that a multiple-choice test as a goal or a measurement can never achieve.

"¢ The best test possible can only be an approximation of learning. Any test must reduce what is being measured and depend on statistical approximations to create the perception that we are measuring something much larger than we are. As James Popham has argued, a test provides us data from which to make inferences, but at best those inferences are approximate--unless you make the test so direct and simplistic as to create a situation where we are collecting data that means almost nothing.

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An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in (more...)
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