Much of parent skepticism about more testing is based on outdated view of what testing actually accomplishes. For years, researchers took it for granted that tests were nothing but a “dipstick,” a tool used to measure the level of fluids in an engine of a car. Students crammed knowledge into their brains – or so the thinking went – and regular testing was just there to assess the level of that knowledge.
From the standardized testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act to the bar exam required for lawyers, the job of them all was to measure student knowledge – by themselves, these yearly (or monthly or even weekly) tortures seemed to offer little but a basic certification of knowledge.
But according to Ezekiel J. Emanuel of the New Republic, recent studies are slowly beginning to upend this point of view. Or rather, the research documenting the so-called “testing effect” has been around for more than a century, but only recently is it getting renewed attention from mainstream academics.
Done properly, testing is not inert. Rather, it can be much more like the physical phenomena underlying the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In the act of measuring students, you can actually affect how much knowledge they absorb and how well they retain it.
Though it doesn’t get a lot of mainstream attention, the research documenting the testing effect goes back nearly 100 years. In one experiment, three groups of high school students were given reading passages to study. The first group did nothing other than go over the material once. The second group studied it two times. The third group was given an initial test on what they’d read. Two weeks later, the students in all three groups were brought back and given an identical quiz. While the group that studied the passages a second time scored better than the group that just studied them once, the students who were initially tested performed best. The results held up when the students sat for follow-ups five months later. The testing had enhanced learning and retention more than just studying.
There’s a trick to maximizing how much testing helps students retain information. The smaller the time gap between when the new material is introduced and when the exam is first given, the more the student is likely to remember. The window is fairly small; Emanuel writes that benefits drop substantially in as little as seven days.
So, could the answer to improved student outcomes be even more testing? It’s entirely possible – but only if the entire assessment approach is reevaluated.
An example of frequent testing with a beneficial function can be found in SAT/ACT prep:
Frequent mental struggle strengthens intellectual wiring. This may be why, for all the SAT’s drawbacks, SAT prep courses featuring lots of practice exams can boost vocabulary and math skills—by forcing students to retrieve the information on all those flash cards, they provide helpful mental workouts.
Practical obstacles remain, though. Teachers need time to develop and administer short tests, and schools need to fund them. With time and funds both at a premium, it may be some time before schools adapt to science.