Schools shouldn’t abandon tests and exams

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, October 17, 2022
Schools shouldn’t abandon tests and exams

There’s an old legal saying that “hard cases make for bad law.” In other words, focusing on exceptions rather than the norm will lead to poor decision-making. The same principle holds true for post-pandemic education policy.

During more than two years of public health restrictions, schools were forced to make all sorts of changes on the fly including cancelling final exams due to the impracticality of having all students in the building on the same day.

Sadly, some educators in Canada want to make this change permanent. They liked that students no longer had to write final exams and believe teachers should find other ways to assess the progress of their students. In their view, traditional tests and exams detract from genuine learning. This is why the Toronto District School Board recently sent out a memo encouraging its teachers to put less emphasis on final exams (apparently, as part of its “decolonization” process).

However, there’s nothing new about this “ungrading” movement. Prominent edu-gurus, most notably American author Alfie Kohn, have long promoted getting rid of tests, exams and grades in school—that the process of learning is more important than the content being learned. Simply put, Kohn and other like-minded activists aren’t particularly concerned about measuring the academic achievement of students.

But here’s the problem. Learning depends on mastering specific content. For example, there’s a close link between background knowledge and reading comprehension. If students do not acquire sufficient background knowledge in a subject, they will have difficulty understanding articles or books about that subject, regardless of how much effort they put into the process of reading the material. Students cannot do much critical thinking about the factors leading to Canadian Confederation if they don’t know anything about John A. Macdonald, George-Etienne Cartier and George Brown. Nor solve advanced algebraic equations if they don’t know the order of operations. Nor have much luck evaluating climate change trends if they lack an understanding of basic meteorology.

Clearly, sacrificing content for process will hurt—not help—student learning. We must ensure that students learn specific material in school. To make this happen, students must write tests and exams that measure their understanding of the curriculum content.

It’s also important to note a rather obvious but glaring reality—tests and exams still exist in post-secondary institutions. Colleges and universities in Canada have not adopted the Kohn approach. Students regularly write three-hour exams in university courses and anyone who plans to attend a professional program (law, medicine, business) must first pass a rigorous entrance exam. Trade schools rely on standards and exams. We would do our students a grave disservice if their initial exposure to a final exam occurs during their first year of post-secondary study.

There’s also evidence that students who write tests and exams learn more than students who do not. This benefit is so well established in psychological circles it’s known as “the testing effect.” Not only does studying for tests help students memorize facts in the short-term, it also enhances their long-term retention of those facts. There’s nothing wrong with using a variety of assessment methods, including essays and projects, but these alternatives should not come at the expense of tests and exams. Contrary to what school board administrators in Toronto appear to think, final exams are not an odorous relic of colonialism.

Of course, students who haven’t written many tests and exams over the last two years will find a normal school year to be a significant adjustment. But it’s better they make this adjustment now than go through yet another year without writing proper assessments. At some point students will discover that writing tests is a part of life. They shouldn’t have to wait until after high school to learn this important lesson.

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