Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Qualified Defense of Standardized Testing in Higher Education

The New York Times recently ran a story about a Bush administration commission examining instituting standardized testing in higher education. The response from academe was predictable. Coturnix catalogued a few of them in his last teaching carnival (scroll about halfway down). Academic bloggers immediately point out that the No Child Left Behind act was disastrous for primary and secondary education, and that this looks simply like an attempt to do the same thing for colleges and universities. Many people also thought this was a clampdown on academic freedom and a part of the Republican war on science. This is all probably true.

But people also insisted that you cannot use standardized tests to measure critical thinking. Daniel at A Concerned Scientist says "We already know that standardized testing is very biased, and a poor indicator of meaningful learning and critical thinking, doing anything BUT contributing to learning and skill-building." Zandperl at Modern Science says "Someone needs to explain to him that all that standardized tests actually determine is whether (1) the student comes from a rich family, (2) the teacher was teaching to the test, and (3) the students are capable of memorizing."

Wait a minute. I teach a course on critical thinking almost every semester. I use a lot of tests in that course, more than any other I teach. These tests are standardized: every student gets the same one, and I use the same kinds of tests every semester. This is not something weird that I do: my tests are like those of almost every other critical thinking teacher in the English speaking world. My tests are not based on memorization. They measure whether the student is able to apply the skills we have been practicing to a novel situation. Nor do I teach to the test. Instead, I designed the test around what I teach. My tests are not direct measures of class background either. Students' scores do probably correlate with socioeconomic status, but this is only because high SES students are more likely to have the study skills that will enable them to learn the skills I am teaching. I am not bragging when I make these claims for my tests. I use the same textbooks and tests that everyone else does.

In other words, it is simply bullshit to say that you can’t test critical thinking. The disingenuousness of this claim comes out especially when people try to argue that standardized testing isn’t necessary because it is already done. Somehow critical thinking is both something that you can’t test and we are already testing for.

Moreover, those of us who teach critical thinking would benefit a lot from formally coordinating our tests. It would make it a lot easier both to identify best practices inculcating the skills we already teach and to determine which skills best transfer to nonacademic situations. (My personal hobby horse is the need to teach argument from authority as something other than a simple fallacy and to explain how to evaluate authorities.)

The UK offers standardized critical thinking A-level (advanced level) tests to students in the final two years of high school. One result of this seems to be a large amount of high quality material on teaching and testing critical thinking coming out of the UK, including some good organizations and textbooks. This leads me to think that a well executed program for evaluating critical thinking at the national level would be a good thing for teachers of critical thinking, and philosophers in general. It would be a chance to get sorely needed serious thinking about epistemology deeper into the standard curriculum.

This is not to say that I trust the current administration to deliver a well executed program of testing, driven by serious thinking about epistemology. Experience suggests that they will do the reverse. But this hardly means we can dismiss standardized testing for critical thinking out of hand.

Update: I removed a link from the sentence on good organizations in the UK when examination revealed that the organization I linked to was neither in the UK, nor very good.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Rob. I agree with you wholeheartedly that most of the anti-standardized testing argument is fallacious and not research-based. In reality, it is an avoidance of accountability issue. I think that NCLB for universities would be a spectacular idea. Common curricular standards, common assessments, and qualified teachers are the main tenets of NCLB. How can that possibly be a bad thing? Most people who are against NCLB are against it because they fear accountability or they are not educators and have listened to the propaganda and half-truths of politicians trying to get elected by bashing the existing party.
In California, we use "enhanced multiple choice" questions on our state-level standardized tests. These are higher order questions that do not simply measure memorization. A student who only memorized facts would not do well on these tests.
Thanks again!