Why Testing is an Effective Method to Gauge Student Understanding and Course Effectiveness

There is a feverish opposition today to testing students at public schools. The argument is usually that it “hinders creativity” or that teachers have to “teach to the test.” The arguments are pretty shallow and never very in-depth, but the sentiment seems to be, “We at public schools are teaching advanced skills, innovation, and creativity and standardized testing cramps our style.”

I propose that these arguments are not just an opposition to the testing as it exists today but an opposition to any objective metrics gauging student’s learning and course effectiveness.

For the record, I am opposed to government schools. At a minimum, government should not be in the business of running schools. However, since we do have government schools, there should be accountability among them to prove that the skill set they are supposed to teach is being taught and received. And even among private schools, testing is an effective method to assess student’s knowledge and course effectiveness. As a future parent, I would prefer to have a standard test applied to each grade level, so I can judge which school is the best at teaching. Parents and taxpayers deserve observable proof that shows them, yes, students learn at this school.

I also do not necessarily endorse testing as it is done today. This article is only meant to defend the practice of standardized testing in and of itself.

Testing is obviously a good method to assess student knowledge. If not, then why do teachers use it themselves? Virtually all classes in schools have tests throughout the course and end with a final test. I have in mind a cartoon where a teacher is giving a student a test, and the student is saying, “You are making me learn to the test! My creativity is hindered by having to learn all of these facts and concepts!” with the teacher frustrated and holding her head in her hand. Then in the next frame, the teacher is saying to someone administering the standard tests, “You are making me teach to the test! I could be teaching creative things but I have to teach them all of these facts and concepts!”

Testing is used in many other places of our society as a proper measure of knowledge and skill sets. One example is the SATs, the Scholastic Aptitude Test or its alternative, the ACT, an abbreviation for American College Testing. Virtually all universities use either one of these exams as one of the requirements for student admission. The reason for these tests is the course difficulty level at all high schools is not the same. Thus a student’s GPA is not the best metric of how much knowledge the student has. The SATs and ACTs even the playing field. Even college admission boards, the preserver and cultivator of our next intellectuals, use standardized tests.

There are many technical certifications that have a rigorous exam at the end. To get one’s CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate), a well-respected certification, one has to pass an infamously daunting exam.

To become a lawyer, one must pass the bar exam. To become a doctor, one must pass a series of exams. All medical certifications administer a test. Ask yourself: if you, your spouse or child has a medical emergency, would you prefer it if the emergency personnel servicing you had been tested (and passed) or not?

Soldiers have to pass rigorous test before being allowed the title “soldier,” and even more rigorous tests to be an elite soldier, such as Special Forces or Navy Seals. Their tests don’t always involve a pen and pencil. They involve how many push-ups and sit-ups one can do, how fast they can run, and how well they can shoot a rifle. But they are tests nonetheless. To become a military pilot, a job which surely requires on-the-spot thinking, one must pass a series of tests, including written, physical, and flight tests.

So, our doctors, lawyers, engineers, and soldiers all must pass tests before entering their professions. But apparently the knowledge that our K-12 students are learning is so complex, abstract, and creative, that it can never be captured in a test in order to gauge their learning.

The purpose of K-12 education is to teach a child how to become a functioning adult. There are skill sets that can be defined and expected to be taught by the time they graduate each grade level and eventually high school. And of these skills sets can be gauged by a test.

Some obvious subjects that students should be expected to learn are reading, writing, and mathematics.

Reading comprehension is clearly an important skill to have. All other knowledge is dependent on it. Reading comprehension starts with the ability to identify letters; then moves on to understanding words, sentences, paragraphs, essays, up to comprehensive documents such as books or user manuals. Each level from K-12 builds on one another, and the student can be gauged at each level to make sure their skills are where they need to be. If one can read well, nothing is unobtainable to them.

The ability to write and speak well is also important. The ability to construct a proper sentence is one of the most important skills a student can have. It will affect how others see them, including in professional settings and on the very cover letter they send to employers in hopes for a job. The ability to write is also progressive, starting with letters, progressing to words, sentences, paragraphs, and comprehensive documentations of thought. Not being able to write well is not always indicative of low intelligence but it is sometimes taken that way. Being able to write well, however, is always taken as a sign of high intelligence.

Mastering mathematical concepts should also be a requirement for high school graduation. A person who cannot add or subtract will not be able to function in society. Mathematics also follows a logical progression from simple addition and subtraction to multiplication and division to much higher levels, including geometry, algebra, and calculus. Mathematics provides one of the clearest examples of a topic in which there are high level concepts that have incontrovertibly right or wrong answers. The principles of mathematics can easily be organized into a test, and the person who passes the test is so very clearly an intelligent person. They are not merely someone who is a “good test taker” or a “good memorizer.” It is no mystery why math is the favorite subject of so many intelligent individuals.

Beyond this, there are other traditional topics that students are and should be expected to know something about in order to graduate. History, government, and economics should be required to create informed citizens who will, by the time they are 18, be given the power to vote.

Other topics such as physics, chemistry, art, drama, sports, etc. should also be taught. Perhaps not everyone will become a physicist or actor but students should be exposed to these topics for maybe it will spark their interest.

In our modern society, students should also be exposed to and expected to learn software applications and computer science principles.

There is great value in defining what set of skills students should know by the time they are 18. It brings visibility to it and thus it can be updated and amended. I have a running list of things I plan on teaching my children—thing I had to learn the hard way. The list includes: understanding mortgage interest rates, health and nutrition, specific driving skills, how to maintain a car, how to change a flat tire, how to sew, and how to cook. All of these things could make valid subjects at school. For fun, I think there should be some electives offered. One may be on fashion design. Another may be on how to operate a firearm, which includes firearm safety.

With as many society ills as there are, I can’t understand why the epidemics we suffer don’t instantly trigger an amendment to what we teach our children. For instance, during the housing boom and bust of the 2000s, it became clear that not all people understood the terms of their mortgage when they signed their contract. Many people accused “predatory lenders” of preying on naïve portions of our society and giving them interest-only mortgage rates that were higher than they could afford. If this were the case, why didn’t it trigger a course in high school learning about mortgage interest rates? Frankly, even among other technical professionals, I can tell they don’t quite understand all there is to know about this topic. It is a worthwhile topic that even includes using some higher level math concepts to fully understand.

With as unhealthy as our society is, you would think the high rates of heart attack and diabetes would trigger courses on these topics sometime in K-12. When I went to school, we had at least 3 courses at different grade levels explaining all of the details of AIDS—something that would prove useful if we were planning on having irresponsible sex or becoming a drug addict. But for courses explaining heart attack or cancer—the most common causes of death among people—there is nothing.

Or think of how many people have back problems. It is estimated 80% of people have back problems. There are things a person can do to maintain the health of their back. They should be taught. In fact, I think regular exercise breaks in a classroom should be encouraged.

Don’t agree with my list? That’s OK. That’s the beauty of defining the requirements for what a student should know. It states it out in the open and brings visibility to it. It can be argued and debated. And, frankly, it would be ideal if as much as could be taught is taught. The only limitation should be how many hours in a day there are.

Developing this set of requirements is called a “competency model.” Once this competency model is created, a teacher’s job is to design a curriculum that will give the student the knowledge outlined in the competency model. There must be a method put in place to ensure that the knowledge that is expected to be taught is received by the student. This can only be accomplished by an assessment of some sort.

Personally, I think that what I just wrote is common sense. However, there seems to be a somewhat hysterical opposition to what I just described. The arguments are that testing is lowly and will dumb down teaching or that none of what is taught in school prepares a student for life. Let us now address these arguments.

One of the most charismatic arguments against testing is that teachers will have to dumb down their curriculum in order to get students to pass the test. The poor teaching methods are described as “drill and kill.”

It simply makes no sense that poor teaching methods will produce high test grades. Perhaps poor training will create a winning baseball team and poor coaching will create Olympic athletes. Bad training doesn’t lead to success. If it did, it should be considered as to why certain methods create success and maybe there is some value in them.

The below quote describes a study in which poor teaching methods were compared to traditional teaching methods. They found that traditional, intellectually-based teaching produced better test scores than the “drill and kill.” From Teach to the Test? Just Say No:

Those results strongly suggest that accountability and standardized tests need not be in conflict with good instruction, and that Resnick and others are wrong to assume that off-the-shelf tests require teachers to give up teaching higher level skills. "Fears that students will score lower on conventional tests due to teacher demands for more authentic intellectual work appear unwarranted," the researchers concluded. "To the contrary, the evidence indicates that assignments calling for more authentic intellectual work actually improve student scores on conventional [standardized] tests." in other words, teaching to the test by "dumbing down" instruction offers only a kind of fool's gold, promising a payoff that it does not deliver. The choice between good instruction and good test scores is a false one. (Emphasis mine)

There is also a very common argument against testing or grades in that it doesn’t prepare a student “for life.” Some claim that a person can be book smart but not life smart. If this is true, this means the curriculum is poorly designed. The purpose of school is to obtain theoretical knowledge for practical purpose. The curriculum can over-teach or under-teach. If there is no practical purpose to what is being taught, then the knowledge is worthless. This is over-teaching. If there is knowledge that is needed for practical purpose that is not being taught, then the curriculum is under-taught. If there is some life skill that cannot possibly be taught in school, then the debate is futile because it is impossible to teach anyway. (I do not believe that it is flat out impossible to teach knowledge.) I do not want to spend a lot of time on this as the debate would be much more fruitful if people specifically identified what is under or over taught in school. Otherwise, the debate is mere sophistry.

The most common argument, however, against standard tests is that the skill set learned is lowly. Indeed, there is a very real bias against learning such allegedly simplistic facts and figures, the kind that can be put on a multiple choice test.

When I was in high school, my English teacher dismissed as unimportant the need for proper grammar. I got the message pretty loud and clear: the stuff in the essays we were writing and writing an integrated essay was important and “higher” than simple grammar. I can understand being a fairly benevolent person and forgiving another person for making a typo when they write something—but for an English teacher to have this attitude about grammar? It is their very job. They should hold the standards for writing the English language high. Instead, they contribute to the very real bias today that proper grammar and spelling are lowly.

Flip through the New York Times Op-Ed page and you will see article after article lamenting that standardized tests hinder “thinking and creativity.”

It is clear that they believe there are higher skills than “merely” learning things, and these higher skills should be taught. The “mere absorbing of facts” (John Dewey) is completely dismissed in favor of these higher skills.

Let’s grant that there are some higher levels skills that cannot be captured in a test. This includes coming up with a creative idea, thinking on the spot, giving persuasive arguments, etc.

Do you believe that these creative, persuasive individuals who can think on the spot don’t have a solid knowledge base buoying them? Would they fail a properly designed test?

If knowledge and creativity are antagonistic, it means that the biggest ignoramus is our best hope for creative genius. The best design engineer, who will come up with a new, innovative mechanical design, is the one who cannot do simple math. The best public speaker is the one who cannot construct a grammatical sentence. The best military officer, who designs battle plans, is the one who cannot read a map. The best artist is the one who cannot draw a circle let alone the human form. (In modern sophisticated circles, I think they believe this last one to be true!)

Higher level skills such as critical thinking and creativity are not antagonistic to knowledge. They are buoyed by knowledge.

A hierarchy of knowledge was developed by Benjamin Bloom. Bloom developed the stages of knowledge, where one level must occur before going to the next level. It looks like the following:

The first level of understanding starts with “Remember.” A student is given a high level overview of the topic and starts to learn some basic definitions. I like to think of this as flying in an airplane to survey a forest, in which you learn the boundaries of the forest, the geographic features, and the names of all of the types of trees, before being dropped in the forest where you will learn about all of the trees.

The next level is “Understanding.” The student learns all of the nitty, gritty details of the subject and can explain them in their own words. In our example, they learn about each individual type of tree.

The next level is “Application.” The student not only understands the knowledge but can do something with it. The student can maintain the trees in the forest.

The final stage is “Expert,” consisting above of Analyze, Evaluate, and Create. It is at this level that the student can give new solutions based on his or her knowledge, come up with creative ideas, and mentor others. In our example, perhaps our expert would come up with a new kind of tree through selective breeding or genetic engineering.

Each level of Bloom’s taxonomy should be taught before the next. It should be confirmed that the student passed one level before going on to the next. It is senseless to start learning the nitty, gritty details of a topic before you are even aware of what the topic is or if you don’t know the basic vocabulary. (This particular mistake is made often in typical schools.) It is equally senseless to try to apply knowledge before you fully understand it. This will result in blind groping and trying different paths until you haphazardly get something right. And to try to come up with a creative solution to something while not being able to apply your knowledge nor have an understanding of the topic—don’t even get me started! It is simply flabbergasting that these “above knowledge,” allegedly creative people, including ones in our schools, think they can skip the Awareness, Understanding, and Application levels and go straight to the Expert level.

As seen by Bloom’s taxonomy, knowledge comes before creativity. A person must be immersed in a topic and understand it before they come up with creative things to do with the knowledge. An engineer must know the laws of physics, the attributes of the materials he is working with, etc., before he starts to design a product that will meet some new requirement, such as being better, faster, lighter, etc. A military officer must know the structure of his troops, their talents, what weapons he has, etc., before designing a winning battle plan. An artist must know about the materials they are to use to make pieces of art with, techniques, and their subject matter before they create a masterpiece.

Creativity is taking the materials around us and rearranging them in some way. You cannot create something from nothing. You must take very real, concrete things and do something with them. Creativity is very much grounded in reality. A creative person can understand and absorb all of the elements of the relevant portions of reality and think of ways to rearrange them in some way. I like to think of it as looking at an attribute of something, say its shape, and asking yourself if it has to be that shape. Now expand that to all attributes of all things. This is how a creative person thinks.

Our teachers’ jobs should be to impart knowledge onto students in order to give them the launching pad off which they can become creative. Certainly, application and expert levels of knowledge can and should be encouraged, but not at the expense of conceptual level knowledge.  

Every teacher of every subject should have a list of requirements that they are to teach the student. At the end of the course, a test should be designed around this competency model to see if the student has learned the information. This is what is complained about when they complain that they have to “teach to the test.” My question: if they aren’t teaching to the test, which is really teaching to a set of requirements, what are they teaching to?

I propose that what they teach to is pretty corrupt, and it is very often politics.

I read a teacher complaining once about having to spend time in her classroom preparing students for a standardized test. It was 2008, an election year, and she instead wanted to spend her time teaching her students about the voting process. I am sure that this “civics lesson” would have been completely factual and no bias about how that teacher leaned politically would have seeped into her lesson. (<--- That was sarcasm!) That article was such a rare confession of what some teachers would prefer to teach that I was surprised it was published.

When I was in school, in English class we had “bull sessions” where students discuss their arbitrary opinions on topics of love, knowledge, and politics. In Physics, we didn’t have a lecture one day and instead the teacher discussed the legalization of marijuana.

If our teachers are teaching necessary life skills, which they feel they must teach as opposed to what is on the standard test, then why aren’t these necessary life skills out in the open for the rest of us to know what they are? Why aren’t they a part of the set of requirements of what a student needs to know before they graduate? If what they are teaching is important, it should be become part of the standard curriculum.

And how will teachers measure student success on these loosey goosey topics? They still have to give out a grade. Any smart individual who went through school can answer that: it is completely arbitrary. One man I know describes how he took an advanced English course in high school. For his essays, he would sincerely try to put coherent thoughts together. He was getting Cs on these essays. Then he decided to just write a bunch of incoherent crap and not even try. He got an A. He went and looked up the requirements to graduate high school, figured out he had enough English credits, and dropped the class. These “higher” courses, lacking in real knowledge or objectivity, have been driving smart kids into the arms of math and science—even when their natural interests may lie elsewhere—for decades.

An even more corrupt reason against testing is because it will expose the dead weight and inefficient teachers in public schools. The standard tests don’t just judge a student’s ability but the course effectiveness as well. If the same test is administered to students of a certain grade level across many school districts, it is telling if one district has statistically significant different results than another school district. With as much dead weight as there is in public schools—who notoriously are slow to fire poor performing teachers—they are nervous about what the tests show. It is sort of sweet irony that these teachers, whose job it is to grade students, don’t like being graded themselves.

This is what is going on: Instead of teaching real skills that could help a student, many in our education system want to teach political ideologies. Standardized tests, which bring accountability to the situation, indeed, cramps their style.

Let me make one caveat to this. There are good teachers who are opposed to testing. By good, I mean they are very active and engaging and sincerely want to teach their students as much as they can. However, of these teachers, almost all of them are afflicted by the same disease: they are opposed to objectivity. This can be seen by some of the things they do and the things they say. For instance, the English teacher who thought grammar was lowly and who had “bull sessions,” which encourage students to look inward rather than outward for truth, was clearly opposed to objectivity. Their opposition to testing in and of itself is an opposition to objectivity. If they teach students that testing is lowly, they are teaching them that knowledge is arbitrary and that objective metrics have no value. In this way, they are somewhat dangerous: they are charismatic teachers who are driving students full speed ahead towards subjectivity.

Educators should be the ones upholding the value of testing. They can provide feedback as to how to best design the tests but to attack the very concept of testing is ridiculous.

Every person who works has something they take in a raw state and transform into a better state. A machinist at a CNC machine takes a hunk of metal, sets it up in the machine, runs it, and at the end, the metal has been altered in some way into a desired form. A doctor’s product is their patient. A patient comes in sick and it is the doctor’s job to make them well. Perhaps more germane to the topic, a drill sergeant’s product is a new military enlistee. His job is to turn the enlistee into a functioning soldier.

Each of these people has metrics to measure if they have done their job correctly. The machinist usually has a set of calipers to measure his part. The doctor has a host of tests including lab tests, X-rays, etc. A drill sergeant implements a round of tests throughout training such as rifle and physical tests.

A teacher’s product is her students. Her job is to take them from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. The eventual goal of a K-12 education is a functioning adult. How can a teacher tell if that goal has been accomplished? There must be a set of tests. A teacher who dismisses the importance of testing is like a machinist without calipers, a doctor without a stethoscope, or a military training program with no physical tests.

There are many questions that can be raised about a properly administered test. Should a time limit apply or not? Do they have to be multiple choice? A very sophisticated kind of test is one that is auto-correcting. The purpose of this particular article is not to talk about the best way to test but to state that some kind of test, i.e., some kind of objective metric, is necessary.

It is, frankly, pathetic that I have to write an article defending the teaching of knowledge. We are unleashing an army of students who have “critical thinking” skills (which are actually blind following) but who are completely ignorant when it comes to writing a sentence, reading properly, knowing history, or understanding science or engineering. I believe the real root of it is anti-enlightenment—some in power want the populace to be ignorant. And it is all the worse since it is done in the name of enlightenment. Students can give “their” very passionate view about political positions but, when asked to use their mind and hands towards a productive end, completely fail.

Standardized tests are not lowly nor do they hinder creativity. They are necessary tools to create knowledgeable students capable of functioning in modern society.

Amber Pawlik
June 21, 2011

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