Aaarrgghh – it's the test!

After returning from an invigorating trip to Singapore and the International Conference on Teaching and Learning (iCTLT 08), I faced the reality of … THE EXAMS. I love learning, and the talking and thinking that grows from spending time with other people who love learning is really powerful. The conference focused on how we, as educators, could make the paradigm shift from a 20th-century, agrarian-industrial education system to one that genuinely promotes divergent thinking, creativity, problem-solving and innovation. I don’t want to set up a straw man argument because, of course, this does happen SOME of the time in schools. However, the point is that this should be the focus ALL of the time. I found myself this week thinking about the Advanced English course that I teach, and how despite some innovative assessment, 65% of assessment was exams.

Yep, despite talking the talk, high-stakes testing predominates.

It’s a depressing realisation that at the end of the day, this mode of assessment limits (even negates) student engagement with literature, film, philosophy and ethics that is at the heart of this course, which in many ways is one of the most progressive of English curricula.

Xmac, from Singapore, who also attended iCTLT, had similar thoughts, in his post “No Context, No Comprende”:

“So, we want our cake and eat it too. We all agree that assessment is an essential component of the learning process. It shows the progress of the learner, the accuracy of the learning, the suitability of the pace of instruction, and lots of other important data for tracking the learning process. And yet, because we are introducing diversity, applying multiple-intelligences to bear on our students’ learning, and encouraging them to take ownership and responsibility over their own learning process, when it comes to taking standardized tests it seems like allowing everyone to run free for a while and then suddenly yanking on their leashes and bringing them all back to the kennel we told them they were being released from. In this model, their learning is still about the test, whatever our intentions were.”

This is why I was heartened to read this story, Phone a Friend in Exams, in the Sydney Morning Herald today.

Students will be able to use iPods, the Internet and mobile phones during exams under a trial program at PLC Sydney.

Presbyterian Ladies’ College at Croydon in Sydney is redefining the “open book” exam concept, in which students are able to bring in reference books, to take into account new technology. The school is trialling the use of the new media with 14 and 15-year-old (Year 9) English students but hopes to expand its use across all subjects by year-end.

English teacher Deirdre Coleman said students were being encouraged to access information using their mobile phones, the Internet and from podcasts on their MP3 players during exams and believes the project has the potential to change the way the Higher School Certificate examinations are run.

But any time a source is used, it must be cited on the test paper to prevent plagiarism, she said.

“In terms of preparing them for the world, we need to redefine our attitudes towards traditional ideas of ‘cheating’, unless the students have a conceptual understanding of the topic or what they are working on, they can’t access bits and pieces of information to support them in a task effectively,” the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Coleman, as saying.