What’s the Point of Testing?

For me, everything that happens in the course of teaching should contribute to improving the students’ knowledge, and testing is no exception. If the only thing that a test (an exam, a quiz, etc.) achieves is to provide a number or a letter, it means we have all wasted our time administering and taking the test in question.

People often invest these numbers with a huge meaning and start “teaching to the test” when what they should really be doing is the opposite: testing to teach.

To give an example, I devise the oral exams in my language courses in a way that allows the students to achieve a significant breakthrough and improve the way they speak dramatically in the course of the exam. They think I’m testing them when, in reality, I’m pushing them to a new level of language competency.

This is why I am so profoundly opposed to multiple-choice tests and consider them a tool of a lazy, irresponsible teacher. All such tests do is suggest to the students that there is one correct answer that a figure of authority will provide for them, and all they have to do it is memorize it and circle the “correct” answer. For the most part, the knowledge students can glean from such tests is erroneous, since for every “correct” answer, there are several “incorrect” ones.

I think that the best thing we can do as pedagogues is stop obsessing over meaningless grades and start concentrating on the actual knowledge we are imparting to the students. Testing is important because it allows students to track their progress and it also motivates them. The far more crucial role of testing, however, is to serve as an inventive way of teaching students at the moment when they are not aware of being taught.

I have taken more methodology of teaching courses than I can tell you about, and we learned to create teaching tests in those courses. In such courses, we, the future language teachers, were taught, for example, the percentage of completely new words and idiomatic expressions that each test should include in order to be effective. According to the rules of the foreign language teaching methodology, I would be remiss as an educator if I failed to include any new words and expressions into the final exam.

Of course, many college profs never get an opportunity to acquaint themselves with this branch of knowledge. As a result, whenever I go to the copy center in our building (which caters exclusively to the disciplines in the Humanities, mind you), I see a multiple choice quiz left there to be copied by one of my colleagues. There are even people who are ignorant enough to assign multiple-choice tests for foreign language courses.

I spent the entire day yesterday grading compositions in my Advanced language course. I underlined every word or expression in the text that didn’t sound right and wrote what kind of a mistake it was (grammar, vocabulary, spelling, etc.) on top. I will return the compositions to students on Tuesday. They will rewrite them and hand them back to me. After that, I will grade them again. It would have been so much easier to hand out some silly fill-in-the-blanks activity instead and spend 20 minutes instead of 5 hours grading it. But the students wouldn’t learn nearly as much from it.