Saturday, January 3, 2009

Final Exams: Educational Child Abuse

Two weeks ago, I witnessed one of the horrors of traditional institutionalized education: The dreaded final exam. I have always questioned the practice of diluting education by blanket testing, but my present school has perfected the art of traumatizing students via mass pencil and paper testing. It’s supposed to “prepare” them for the rigors of advanced courses and ultimately, so the argument goes, for university courses. What it does succeed in doing is demoralizing, marginalizing, and sorting students. What it does NOT do is assess what students understand. Unfortunately, it is a very common practice in international schools.

The school has a policy that teachers of all courses devise a common final examination. In the case of two of my courses, biology and physical science, that includes every student in grades nine and ten. All 200 students take the same test in each of the two grades. This archaic practice assumes four things:
• Teachers know what is best for students to learn;
• All students learn at the same rate and in the same way;
• All teachers teach the same way;
• Testing students all at once in a cavernous hall is the most efficient method.
At least the last of these assumptions is true.

Although my protests—delivered in as diplomatic a way as possible for a new faculty member—were taken into consideration, and in fact, caused some changes toward realistic assessment, the final test took the form of the decades-old model of a great deal of “multiple guess” items followed by another hour of short answer trivial pursuit. Personally, I did not see the point in asking students to memorize what they could easily look up on the internet in a matter of seconds. I was able to insert some short answer questions that asked for students to explain their understanding, but I admit that even those were not particularly important or of interest to the students.

I felt ill watching the effects such testing has on the students: the stress evident in their hunched shoulders, and later the fatigue and pain in their eyes as they slowly trudged from the room. A small army of teachers maintained watch, striding up and down the long rows as though wardens. When I gathered the exams from my students, I had to find a spot to just hide and reflect on this academic form of torture. Later, I handed a course proposal to my department head that changes the way biology is taught and learned in traditional schools, and which does not require mindless memorization in order to “prepare” for advanced courses. The course would be an option for students, and centers on rigorous biological field investigations and literary research, designed and conducted by the students. The project-based course allows students to learn concepts by following a course of study that they choose. There will be no semester exam. Will it fly with administrators? Stay tuned.


Dr. Knight said...

You are leading a great crusade. As in Iowa, we want to produce citizens who can think, be creative, problem solve, but alas, our assessment system only awards credit for memorization and spewing of factoids. I am struggling with that also with the Iowa Core Curriculum. We want application of the essential concepts and skills and profess that these skills are not course specific, yet all examples given to the field are course specific and the assessments are all multiple choice. Hope you make change there.... I am trying here...
take care friend,
Cynthia Knight

John Stiles said...

Thanks, Cynthia! The struggle continues! I'll post progress if and when it happens. Hang in there. Iowa science education rocks!