Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Case Against the Graduate Record Examination

Ahhhhh! I despise exams. Particularly multiple-choice ones. And particularly ones that have a magnitude of importance.  I recently had the torturous pleasure of taking the GRE, a standardized test which is required for entrance to most post-graduate programs of study in the US. I didn't do very well and subsequently became quite defeated by the process of the test itself. It had been 8 years since I'd written an exam of this calibre. I didn't put an adequate amount of effort into studying. I am not an effective test taker when it comes to multiple choice exams. I don't deal well with failure or exam anxiety or timers. The computer adaptive testing (CAT) format is completely frustrating. I could go on and on about the multitudinous reasons for my failure to perform as I had hoped, detailing why my poor performance wasn't a fair judgement or an accurate depiction of my abilities. The truth is I did poorly, period. I'm not trying to avoid or excuse that fact, but I do want to share some insights and ideas with you about why I feel that standardized testing is completely ridiculous.

At a time and in a place where K-8 educational standards and practices reflect a general, albeit slow, move away from standardized testing, traditional assessments and formal reporting practices (ok, maybe not in the US, but definitely in settings like the International Baccalaureate's Primary Years Programme), how is it that universities and colleges still form the basis of their acceptance policies on ranking applicants in terms of their test scores? The GRE is required for almost all fields of graduate study in the US, including Education. I want to learn, grow and invest my future into reforming pedagogy and reevaluating practices that impede our current generations of learners and learning styles. I want to have an undeniable impact on the way teachers teach and the way learners learn and I have the impetus to do it (and do it well, in my opinion). Yet I probably can't get myself into a highly-ranked, well-recognized department of Education to pursue a Masters degree because I don't perform well on standardized tests.

Young learners of today, especially in the IB PYP programme, aren't often exposed the world of standardized testing and we've seen vast improvements in skill development and real-world understandings that will empower young people in a furutre of critical and creative problem solving and innovative design. But will they still have to pass a test to get into university in 10 years? It is likely. Will they have to pass a test to get a job? Hopefully not.

The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising Scores, Ruining Schools by Alfie Kohn was published in 2000 with outstanding evidence about how standardized testing is detrimental to learning and an inaccurate assessment of student understanding or academic ability. From Alfie Kohn's website, News & Comments, January 2010 he states: "As for the research studies: Collectively, they make it clear that students who are graded tend to differ from those who aren’t in three basic ways. They’re more likely to lose interest in the learning itself. They’re more likely to prefer the easiest possible task. And they’re more likely to think in a superficial fashion as well as to forget what they were taught." 

Most teachers and schools that I am familiar with, through my short career, focus on promoting an authentic interest in learning, actively engaging students and helping them invest in their own development while providing an environment which fosters life long learning for learning's sake. Authentic assessment is essential and formative feedback is fundamental. We must begin to accept that grading, ranking and comparing of students to one another, goes completely against the intuitions of learning and promotion of growth.

So (if) it's true that within International K-8 education, we are beginning to change, to move away from standardized testing and traditional forms of student evaluation, where will that leave the future generations when it is time for them to pursue post-secondary level education? How will they cope with the levels of scoring, summative assessments and testing regimes? How will they fare when all critical and creative thinking abilities, collaborative and cooperative learning habits, and so-called 21st century learning skills are thrown out the window during an undergraduate degree? We are slowly beginning to model our K-8 learning environments to reflect what the working force will demand in the future, but most universities and colleges haven't fallen in line. How will students navigate this unknown realm of mid-terms and final exams? How will they even get accepted into these institutions?

So back to the GRE and me. Why do I fail so miserably at multiple choice questions? For my undergrad degree, I studied Biological Sciences and many of my courses were evaluated almost entirely by multiple-choice testing. And I managed. Here's a perspective on multiple-choice questions and deep thinkers by Banesh Hoffman, a mathematics professor who worked with Albert Einstein and wrote a book in 1962 titled The Tyranny of Testing. He particularly discredits multiple-choice testing, stating in an interview: "Multiple choice tests penalize the deep student, dampen creativity, foster intellectual dishonesty, and undermine the very foundations of education". (Source: The Myth of Measurability, edited by Paul Houts, (Hart Publishing Company, 1977), page 202.) Hoffman continues, "It is not the presence of defective questions that makes multiple-choice tests bad. Such questions merely make them worse. Even if all the questions were impeccable, the deep student would see more in a question than his more superficial competitors would ever dream was in it, and would expend more time and mental energy than they in answering it. That is the way his mind works. That is, indeed, his special merit. But the multiple-choice tests are concerned solely with the candidates choice of answer, and not with the reasons for his choice. Thus they ignore that elusive yet crucial thing we call quality." (Source: The Tyranny of Testing,(Collier Books, 1962), page 92.)

In my undergrad, I managed to get myself through exams with a few techniques and strategies, all of which were useless in the GREs computer adaptive testing format, where you can't see the questions ahead and/or go back to the ones you've completed. I have zero time management abilities when I can't tell what is coming up. For example, in the verbal section you must answer 30 questions in 30 minutes. I couldn't quite master the 1 minute per question approach and was frequently stressing about the time I was taking on selecting my answers. Near the end, I had managed to catch up and was happy to see that I had exactly 4 minutes remaining to complete the final 4 questions. Seemed like I was on top of things. I hit the continue button, just to see that the final 4 questions were based on a 5-paragraph text laid out on the screen. It would have taken me 4 minutes just to read it once thoroughly (I am a slow and careful reader). So I had to skim the article and then race through the last 4 questions, basically throwing out guesses. You can imagine how great that felt.

Well the GRE is now behind me. I can chalk it up to an interesting and experiential learning activity. It definitely helped me reflect deeply and question my own philosophy of assessment and evaluation. I might try to write the GRE again in a few months. I might not. I still plan to apply to pursue my Masters degree and hopefully I will not be judged entirely on my testing ability, because ultimately, it is not a skill set that I am seeking to Master.


  1. Very good points! Very much agreed... A couple fo things though: 1) I think the CAT mechanism actually does improve the effectiveness a little bit, if used properly, for all the reasons that it was introduced. But it doesn't seem to work properly... for example, it's ridiculous that the questions take a different amount of time to answer and that you don't know what type of question is coming. 2) I'm not convinced that being standardized makes tests ineffective per se. You can standardize but still be adaptive to a student's needs. The CAT is a (small) step in that direction. For example, the system could ask the student what score he thinks he/she should get, and then ask questions based on that. Adaptation could also be done based on other dimensions than expected score. With millions of individuals being tested every year, there must be a middle ground between the unfair/ineffective treating everyone the same, and the inefficient/infeasible/uncomparable treating every individual differently.

  2. Absolutely. The computer adaptive testing (CAT) scheme is an amazing piece of technology. I actually use it often with students for practice with games like Free Rice (vocabulary, mathematics, etc.). I have found it to be an effective resource for differentiating individuals' needs in order to challenge their learning, and not give them questions that are too easy or too hard, which is a waste of time and deters from the value and reward of learning something. I think it an engaging tool for specialized learning and an effective aid for memorization. Test-prep!

    Here's my main problem with multiple-choice testing: it is essentially a strategy for testing people's ability to memorize. People who can memorize (through practice) a slew of strategies, formulas and definitions. The GRE, however, did also integrate some well-crafted questions, ones which I felt challenged my problem-solving abilities and critical/creative thinking skills. If the goal is to challenge people's ability to solve problems (using any number of strategies and techniques) then these questions can not adequately be answered within 1 min/question timeframe. Hence, my main problem with the GRE: the time limit! These questions need time, or at least, different people need different amounts of time.

    Standardized testing is necessary and serves a fundamental purpose in acceptance to institutions of high-level education. I don't see an alternative that would satisfy its role in this process. I can accept that people simply must qualify their skills/abilities (even test-taking) to a standardized degree in order to gain acceptance into certain highly-regarded departments and/or schools. Reputations of academic excellence and intellectual rigor are based on things like this.

    In relation to educating and preparing children for a diverse and demanding future, in both schooling and the work force, my question is: How do I (we) adequately prepare students to both compete and collaborate? memorize steps yet also problem solve? question some things and accept others? use inquiry/creativity/innovation to find new solutions and also follow standard instructions?

    Thanks for the feedback (and for reading)!