Memorizing is not the same as learning. We know that. We have studies and experts and books and websites to tell us that memorization is not the same as learning. Those of us who teach, have children, or attend school know first hand: vocabulary words memorized for a test are forgotten in under a month. To learn, students must interact with relevant, contextualized material. Tests that require the memorization of discrete facts clearly incentivize memorization over genuine learning, so why do we still rely on these tests to measure learning, progress, ability, or knowledge?
The obvious answer is that testing is the easiest way to, you know, test. Increasing focus on teacher accountability results in increasing reliance on standardized tests that focus on minutia rather than the learning process. Punishing schools and teachers whose students perform poorly on such tests has lead to an academic crisis called “teaching to the test,” wherein teachers neglect holistic, meaningful curricula in favor of lessons designed to improve student scores on standardized tests. Everyone knows that this is a problem. Furthermore, the content of many standardized tests is frequently considered unfairly biased against students of color. Parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, and even students understand that the accountability system is broken, but progress is slow because the issue is complex and humans often resist change.
Because I work independently with students, I rarely have to interact with standardized testing. Although my students do sometimes have to complete standardized tests, I never teach to the test because, unlike traditional school teachers, my income and resources do not depend on my students’ test scores. However, most children do not have the luxury of individual education, so most children in our country are victims of a completely broken educational system. Frankly, that sickens me. I’m an educator because I believe that education is the most important tool for personal, societal, and global wellness. I’m a homeschool teacher because I believe that our education system hinders real education!
The last standardized test I took was the SAT. I believe that my SAT scores accurately reflected my abilities at the time because I didn’t study at all. However, nearly every student in my socio-economic group prepares in some way for the SAT, making many SAT results indicative a student’s dedication to study and ability to memorize, not the general knowledge and subject fluency of that student. I have several problems with this system. First, test preparation is expensive, so affluent students are at an advantage. Second, I don’t believe that tests should require specific preparation.
Yes, I’m saying that students should (almost) never be asked to study.
When students study for a test, their goal shifts from learning to achieving. I’m not just talking about standardized tests; students typically prepare for a vocabulary test by memorizing textbook definitions of each word, not by interacting with the words in a natural, inquisitive way. Thus they gain only an academic understanding of the word, and they forget even that within a few weeks. Although teachers know this, they worry that a student who isn’t going to be tested won’t pay attention to the material at all.
Before I began writing this post, I asked a friend to answer a few questions. This friend is a graduate student studying psychology. She earned “good” grades in school. I asked her five questions about junior high level geometry, and she said “Psh, I don’t remember” to four of them. I know she took myriad tests on basic geometry. I know she did worksheets. Junior high geometry lessons are supposed to accomplish two goals: First, they’re meant to help students understand how the world works. The formulas for area, perimeter, etc. are part of spacial logic. Second, basic geometry is meant to serve as a foundation for advanced mathematics. My friend didn’t pursue advanced math, but she should still be able to use spacial logic to determine the answer to questions like “how do you find the volume of a rectangular solid?” The reason she can’t remember how to solve such a problem is that she was taught to memorize the formula rather than to understand what the formula meant. Her math teachers taught to the test. What if, instead of incentivizing memorization, educators simply introduced concepts in context, encouraged students to explore concepts in a variety of ways during class, and assigned minimal homework designed to encourage retention? What if teachers never asked their students to memorize equations at all?
I do think students gain one major skill from studying: the ability to study. Certain professions require memorization. Litigators, politicians, surgeons and emergency personel, and newscasters who perform on live TV or radio all definitely need to know how to study! Even if we created an educational system that was, for example, free of the SAT, there would still be some merit in learning how to study. However, in such a world, studying could be one of many skills taught and utilized in schools. Today, every test is a test on studying.
What would happen if we abolished (“closed-book”) testing completely? I want to hear from you!
Teachers: do you feel that classroom tests help you measure learning? Do you worry that tests encourage memorization and discourage exploration?
Parents: how do you help your children prepare for school tests? If your child earns an A on a test, do you feel that your child has learned that material? How do you react when your child performs poorly on a classroom or standardized test?
Homeschool families: has testing affected your decision to homeschool? Do you rely on testing of any kind?