Rethinking the Value of Testing

There’s a really interesting article in yesterday’s NYTimes about testing.  The article examines a new study in the journal Science that:

“found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods … In the experiments, the students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week after using one of the methods to learn the material. Those who took the test after reading the passage predicted they would remember less than the other students predicted — but the results were just the opposite.”

Fascinating that test taking had a positive effect on learning, while simultaneously having a negative effect on the perception of learning.  I’m sure test-haters and the education-as-self-esteem-building folks will have a field day with this.

I think these results should be interpreted not as a validation of testing as the sine qua non of educational attainment, but rather should settle once and for all testing’s relevance as an instructional tool.  Obsessing over the extent to which testing should drive education policy completely misses the point that testing and its results results can drive more effective instructional practices.

Also, on the perception issues, I view testing like I view job performance feedback.  If the only time you get feedback on your performance is during an annual review, of course you will perceive that conversation with trepidation.  It’s too high-stakes and unpredictable.  But, if you engage in a continuous conversation about performance and improvement, no single conversation will carry so much baggage.  The same goes for testing.  I’m willing to bet that the perceptual issues are very much tied up in how schools currently use testing, as opposed to how we should use it.


5 Responses to Rethinking the Value of Testing

  1. Jon Schmidt-Davis says:


    Thanks for posting this – it’s definitely interesting and worth following.

    When I actually went to and read the NYTimes I got hit by a surprise about half-way through the article, sotheing I hadn’t been expecting based on the way you and the NYTimes had headlined this story:

    “The final group took a “retrieval practice” test. Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes. Then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test.”

    So is this result about testing, or is it about writing? Given everything that Mike Schmoker and Dough Reeves and others have been saying about the importance of non-fiction writing as a necessary tool to help students learn, I’m guessing that this is at least as much about the writing exercise as the testing. Not to discount the results or anything, but if we don’t look at what was actually done we could give people the impression that this study supports something like more multiple-choice testing as a way to improve retention. We probably shouldn’t emphasize testing on the basis of this study without also saying that students have got to write in order to improve their retention.

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  4. john thompson says:

    So just for the sake of thinking out loud, let’s say you are right. Testing and evaluations cause trepidation because they are infrequent and arbitrary. I can buy that.

    But what does it do to human beings when good testing and good evaluations are ubiquitious? If the Gates MET dashboard was perfected, for instance, would it be a heart attack and stroke manufacturing machine par excellence? what happens to the health of truck drivers who are constantly monitored to see whether they shift gears at the right time? Fatal illness has gone through the roof.

    Perhaps Gates should fund similar research to see if human beings are capable of functioning under the social engineering systems he seeks?

  5. Justin Cohen says:

    John … I think i see an end state somewhere between near ubiquity and infrequent, high-stakes events. Stay tuned for a future post on engineering systems predicated on actual human beings as actors!

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