Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Using Examinations & Testing to Improve Educational Quality

Examinations: Comparative and International Studies

Heyneman & Ransom discuss the critical role of national examinations in policy implementation and educational reform. Eckstein & Noah discuss why it is important to use national examinations in education. The reasons for using examinations include (1) to identify student strengths and weaknesses; (2) to provide feedback to officials regarding these strengths and weaknesses--within and between schools, districts, and regional areas; (3) to certify mastery of the curriculum; and; (4) as an established selection tool used in identifying the brightest students, thus providing students with an opportunity to obtain advanced degrees. The authors feel the last function of national examinations to be the most influential on individual performances “Selection examinations are the most powerful motivational lever in the education sector. . . The power of using national examinations lies in their ability to allocate life chances.”

In addition to using examinations to gauge students strengths and weaknesses, examinations are also used to compare the educational attainment of students with the changing needs of today’s world and global economy. Examinations are also used to initiate curriculum reform, i.e. by changing the material in national examinations, students must shape their learning in order to perform well on national examinations. The authors also discuss how this approach can fail when it is used as a mechanism to bypass the normal route of gaining public support from parents and communities.

Eckstein & Noah discuss the changing views of testing in American Society, and the controversy surrounding the role of examinations within American Society. They point out the opposing view points regarding the use of rigid, structured examinations in schools as a tool which undermines the foundations of American education: to respond to individual creativity, and make learning attractive to America’s children. The authors also point out the limits to this argument, which fails to accept to testing as an important measurement device. They use China as an example of to demonstrate this point: At one point when China eliminated standardized testing from the curriculum, students assessments were based in large part on Political, Religious, or socioeconomic factors with no way to keep such extraneous variables in check with more objective types of evaluation, allowing for extremely subjective and personal interpretations of student achievement.

The issue at hand becomes not whether or not examinations have a critical role in education, but rather what to measure and how. Seeing how examinations are frequently the strongest indicator as to a child’s future academic success and independent functioning, teachers are under significant pressure to teach those skills which will be measured on such examinations. The authors refer to this as the backwash effect of public expectations, since teachers are often more concerned with a student’s performance on the exam than the relevance of the materials on the exam. When their is a discrepancy in what teachers and students see as useful knowledge, and the skills which are being tested on the exam, this no doubt has a negative effect on what is being taught and what is being learned in schools.

Reference: Examinations: Comparative and International Studies
Max A Eckstein & Harold J. Noah / Eds. Stephen P Heyneman & Angela W Ransom

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Elyssa D. Durant, Ed.M.