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Too Many Tests


Too Many Tests Spoil the Learning

by Kenneth Lyen

The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (Acme) recently published their report on mathematics tests for 14-19 year olds in England. They concluded that too many tests damaged students’ enthusiasm for maths.

"There is a danger that this can lead to an 'exam mentality' - for both pupils and teachers - where learning is just about passing tests," said the report. Indeed they point out that the number of candidates applying to sit for A’level maths has fallen in the past few years.

The side effects of too many tests is not new. On the one hand tests can be used to motivate students to study. However, when the results are worse than expected, a student’s morale and self-esteem can plummet.

I remember that in my youth I was terrible at tests. Some days I could fare brilliantly, and on other days, I could fail miserably. Many a time I was careless, sometimes not reading the questions properly, sometimes completely missing out an entire page of problems.

The trouble is that teachers take test results far too seriously. We students get branded at worst as "useless", and at best as "lazy".

Let's look at an example. A student scored 82% in his maths in the first term. The second term he made several careless mistakes and he only obtained 38%. The final mark for the year was an average of these two marks, and this came to 60%, placing him near the bottom of his class. The question is which of the marks best reflect the boy's maths ability:
a) The highest mark scored: 82%
b) The lowest mark scored: 38%
c) The average of these two marks: 60%
d) None of the above

I would suggest that the answer is a) The highest mark scored. In life, we are more interested in what you can achieve rather than what you cannot.

I have often campaigned privately among my friends and colleagues against exams, but this is a battle I can never win on a larger scale. Schools in Singapore seem to have more exams nowadays than when I was a student. Educators keep on reminding me that "exams are a necessary evil". Of course I never believed them.

Although there has been an increase in the number of tests given to students, and there may even have been some elevation in the results, this has not been accompanied by an improvement in performance in the workplace. Indeed, with regard to writing, the standard has worsened significantly in recent years. These observations are admittedly anecdotal, but they seem to resonate not only among employers, but also among teachers.

The Acme report called for a cut in the "overall volume and frequency" of tests.

I would agree wholeheartedly.

8 February 2005