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The Great Testing Hallucination

If I wanted to start an argument about a really intractable subject, I might opt for the war between the sexes, or possibly the Middle East—but those pale in comparison to the scorching topic of testing. This is not a particularly fun topic to write about given the fact that it is one hellaciously contentious area in education and generates the biggest fights.

Testing in schools is one matter. Testing for adults is another. Testing in the area of distance education is where I will put my foot upon the hot coals today. If we think that testing, or evaluation based on testing, is the rock upon which we must build, we are on unstable ground indeed.

On a Bill Maher show, Salman Rushdie said: "The SAT is a stupid test because multiple-choice questions are stupid.” Well, there you have it. It’s not often I have heard such a gracious and profound writer be quite that … explicit and unambiguous. I felt his scolding all the way to my toes. Is he correct? Gerald Bracey writes that standardized tests “don’t measure creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, or endurance.” Is that bad? Do we need learners to have those capabilities?

If we put these concerns in the context of testing individuals through software, over time and space, and add a highly unregulated approach, I think we see that we are living in a sort of shared hallucination about the accuracy and viability of testing as an LX construct. If on top of this we suggest that testing, given its time-bound and exacting nature, actually leads to stress and downshifting in learners, I think the emperor has really joined the parade front and center.

The advocates of testing, such as the scientific blogger Copernicus, suggest: “The multiple choice format then is here to stay, certainly at the level of assessing students coming out of high schools (or colleges, for the GRE).” So, it’s here to stay because it is the best idea we have, even though it damages learners and creates, as testing researcher Strauss suggests, “superficial learners”? Is this how we prepare adults for learning?

Standardized testing will continue to be an intellectual and political football for decades, but as we consider its importance with outcomes in learning and technology design, it can’t be stressed highly enough. We need a better way of evaluating learners, as it is the key factor in any form of distance learning strategy. Reliability can have validity measures, data streams can inform us about learners, but we must find a better way or at the very least admit we really can’t evaluate our learners. We must stop pretending that evaluation is giving us real learner metrics.

I know: hand me the gasoline—I have a fire going on here.

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