What to Test Instead

Posted on September 16, 2012
by FeliciaOctocog
September 16, 2012 | | Source: Boston Globe

When Harvard University announced last month that it was investigating 125 students for cheating on a take-home exam, most of the ensuing public fuss focused on the students: whether they were kids wrongfooted by the requirements of an unpredictable class, as they claimed, or sneaky overachievers driven to cut corners by some mix of ambition and laziness. But beyond the question of the moral fiber of Harvard students, there was another player in the drama: the test itself.

The final exam, according to the instructions, had been “completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” The one thing it forbade the students to do was to work together—a requirement that some commentators, such as Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo, have argued is absurd. If the purpose of education is to help young people develop skills they’ll need later in life, Manjoo wrote after the scandal broke, it makes no sense to arbitrarily prevent them from demonstrating precisely those skills when they’re taking a test.

That point doesn’t exonerate the accused: If there was a rule and they broke it, they cheated. But it does raise a deeper question: Just what was the test trying to achieve? What exactly do we want our tests to be testing?

Being successful in today’s world, as we all now recognize, requires more than an ability to think quickly and recall facts on command. And our education system has, however fitfully, moved to address those values. The problem is that our tests still lag behind. A final exam like the Harvard one, for example, attempts to test students’ resourcefulness by allowing them to consult books and websites—but then, because professors still need to grade on individual performance, draws a hard line on working in groups, which in the real world is an important part of resourcefulness as well. That students were so tempted to use these illicit skills of collaboration points at the problem: There is a whole spectrum of crucial skills—creative thinking, problem-solving, communicating with others—that educators are still struggling to test for in a fair, objective, efficient way.