The secret to success: Where testing can be unhelpful

Illustration by Dionel de Borja.

As college students, we’re not strangers to test-taking. Personally, I started finding the idea of test-taking incredibly interesting after quarantine started and I began to see more of what my parents did at work. Like many people, I had no idea what my parents actually did for a job; however, once quarantine started I got an insight into their world. And in many ways, it seemed like the skills I was learning were not necessarily going to help me once I reached the working world.  

In college, “success” is majorly dependent on our grades. To get good grades, we have to do well on tests and be good test-takers. And though there are many strategies to  achieve this,  to be a good test taker, you have to be able to absorb, understand and manipulate the information you’ve learned  and use that knowledge to answer questions. Test-taking hones skills like memorization and study skills. When I spied on my parents, I found they were not often using these skills. They were in meetings, writing emails and utilizing interpersonal skills. They were helping colleagues and asking for help to accomplish tasks.  

The skillset was not aligning.  

This is not to say the information on the test is not important. You need to understand how to code to be a programmer at Google. You need to understand human anatomy to become a doctor. However, the strategies we hone while in college to “succeed” simply will not help us succeed in the job market. We don’t just need to learn how to be independent. We need to have the opportunity to work in groups and accordingly, hone our social and emotional intelligence. Indeed, many people leave a job not because they feel unable to do or understand the work, but because of interpersonal conflict or because they are unequipped with the skills to succeed in that environment

Even more concerning is the effect of testing on teaching and how many school systems have overused the tool. Daniel Koretz, an expert on the subject of test-taking at Harvard University, discusses in his novel The Testing Charade how testing degrades the goals of teaching and learning. Kortez makes another interesting point: The blame does not rest on the teachers, but on how society as a whole has been measuring the success of schools. If we continue to use only test scores to determine the excellence of a school, then teachers will continue to teach to test. When used sparingly, standardized tests can be wonderful for assessing, understanding and improving instruction. But when used in an environment where testing is the focus and the measure of “success,” the results show that students and teachers are at a disadvantage. 

This change can come with the government. The Common Core was implemented in 2009 and established standards for math and English test scores, playing into the narrative surrounding testing. However, the standard was adopted in all but nine states. Research has shown that focusing on emotional intelligence as well as subject matter exacerbates a student’s skill set and ability. The government has the power to change the focus of learning for the better. And a change in the government would certainly create the most lasting results, though change can truly begin at any level.  

Testing is a tool which, like many things, degrades if used too often. It is not a good measure of “success” when abused and does not necessarily instill within students many important traits they will need in the real world. Many of the facets of the public school system need to be reformed. Now we must add testing and the narrative surrounding it to the list.  

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