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Learn to Love Standardized Tests. They Are Here to Stay.

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Friday, December 9, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Let’s face it, tests are a regular part of student life. Ohio researchers have found all this testing is not good for students, but it’s not going away any time soon.

The students in the CWRU freshman seminar don't have to take many exams. They are graded largely on written essays, presentations and classroom discussions.

Let’s face it, tests are a regular part of student life. Third through eighth graders must take regular exams on reading and math, high school students have to take the Ohio Graduation Exams, and then there’s the SAT's and ACT's before college starts. Some Ohio researchers have found all this testing is not good for students, but it’s not going away any time soon.

[audio href="" title="Why You Should Learn to Love Standardized Tests"]Standardized tests are a mandated part of many federal and state education initiatives, though Ohio is working on developing better ways to test students.[/audio]

Richard Boyatzis does not test his students.

Well, to be more accurate, he does not give his students any tests to take. They are graded in other ways: essays, discussions, projects and similar things. This is a point of pride for the Case Western Reserve University business professor.

Boyatzis says, “if we are not exciting them about learning, and we’re just getting them into being conscientiously conformist and fitting our expectations in elementary school, middle school and then high school by the time they come to college we have automatons who keep saying ‘well is this going to be on the test?’”

Boyatzis’ research has focused on how positive feedback in coaching has a more productive effect than negative feedback.

His co-researcher, cognitive psychologist Tony Jack, found that taking tests literally shuts down parts of the brain.

“When you go into this sort of analytic mode that you need to do to do a test exam and to focus in that way, you’re actually turning off a network which is important for self-regulation and social and emotional intelligence generally," Jack says.

Cognitive psychologist Tony Jack says taking an exam actually turns off parts of the brain that are critical to success in life.

"What you need to be doing in real life and what’s leading to success in real life is that you’re moving between these networks in a way that’s fluid.”

Jack says tests only measure one kind of “smart” – the analytical intelligence needed to take exams.

He confesses to using multiple-choice tests in his bigger classes, but he tries to focus his teaching on discussion, like in his first year psychology seminar.

Freshman psychology major Lizzie Stotter is in that seminar. She says she does well in these sorts of classes, but taking tests was never her strong suit.

Stotter says she always had good grades in school, "but test taking was just not something I was good at. My grades were always above average where my test scores would just be at the average level.”

Freshmen psychology student Lizzie Stotter says she's always been a good student, just not a great test-taker.

Stotter says she doesn’t have any severe anxiety around test taking, more like a slightly above average dose of nervousness.

She says "there’s so much hype around test-taking that students get nervous before it. There’s a lot of pressure placed on students to show up on that one day and do well.”

But her classmate, freshman physics major David Liu, says he never had a problem with bubble sheets, or any kind of test. In fact, Liu is a pretty big fan of them.

“You can’t just rely on grades because I know personally many people who got perfectly fine grades but didn’t really know anything about the subjects in the class," Liu says.

Not to worry. Tests aren’t going anywhere. They play a large and mandated role in several federal education grants, including Race to the Top, as well as some state programs.

There are some really good reasons standardized tests have become mainstream in Ohio’s schools. For one thing, they are the most cost and time effective way of assessing student learning.

Plus, “the political realities are that we do have a standards based system of education” says Jim Wright, Director of the Office of Assessment at the Ohio Department of Education.

Case Western Reserve University business school professor Richard Boyatzsis says there are better ways to evaluate student knowledge than standardized exams.

As for creating individualized tests for each student, Wright says “that would be wonderful but from a cost-benefit standpoint that’s not realistic.”

Ohio is looking at testing that goes beyond multiple-choice.

That will include "going to an online environment where there could be multiple choice type questions, constructive response type questions, simulations, computer enhanced," Wright says. "They’re also looking at performance based assessments ad as technology improves some artificial intelligence scoring."

Imagine getting graded by a robot. It may not be that far off. Ohio will start piloting the on-line testing program in 2012, and it should be up and running in two years.

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