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Reflections on testing: its advantages and impact

In this article, we shall attempt to speak about education from the academic point of view. The concept is so commonplace that even a schoolchild will be familiar with the word. However, as it is always the way with general concepts like this, one would struggle to give a definition straightaway. The books define education as a means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. In a more specific sense, education is a formal process, by which people deliberately transmit accumulated knowledge (be it science, customs or traditions) from one generation to another.

That definition is true and we shall agree with it, because trying to define it anew would be like trying to reinvent the wheel. Although, there is a thing to add. These days, education is not only a process but an asset as well. And one of the most valuable assets, for sure. Not only valuable but also the most sought after. Not everybody looks to buy real estate in Spain, but everyone tries to get education. One can set up an interview, but it is well known anyway. Ones you get education, possibilities expand greatly. As Horace Mann said, “A human being is not attaining his full heights until he is educated”. And that is true in every respect.

So, people strive to get education, but it is not the certificate itself that makes your life better, it is knowledge you get during study, and not only knowledge; skills, those you acquire during study, skills which allow you to be a professional. No teacher will tell you answers to all questions, but teach you how to find one. Knowledge and skills, both are equally important, only having the former and the latter a person can be called well educated professional.

Here we come to the notion of quality. Quality is, as defined by ISO 8402-1986, “the totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bears its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs”. And as it is with any other goods, you want to make sure that what you get is of a good quality. But if the quality of other goods is easily assessable, it is not really true about education. One can always buy a microwave and have it replaced or refunded the next day if doesn’t function properly. It would have been wonderful if you could do it with education. Alas, you can’t, so, even if education and microwave are both goods, there is a far cry between the two, so they must be approached absolutely differently, and assessed differently.

Let’s try to compare education with services. Let’s take the most basic one and the most widespread – cleaning. You can’t tell if the cleaning will be good or not when you hire a janitor, they all say they are good. Same is with Universities, each and every promise to give superior education; we know that not everybody lies, don’t we? But with the former, you can asses results on the next day, whereas with the latter…

What I was trying to say is that education and its quality can have very long term results. One more thing to remember is that it is determined not only by the provider but also by the recipient. It is not only about how well you are being taught; it is also about how well you learn. The latter is often more important than the former. So it is not only the quality of teaching that should be assessed, but the quality of learning, as it plays major role in the whole process.

And this is quite easy to prove. Just recall you school years, or university course. Everyone has an example where a very good teacher (subject is not important ad hoc) failed to give knowledge to a student unwilling to learn, i.e. having no intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from inside an individual rather than from any external or outside rewards. But that is more often an exception, especially in a university, where people are generally more motivated to learn and the subjects are more interesting for them, being close to their life’s interests and vocation.

It is a teacher’s job to keep students motivated, by creating extrinsic motivation, which, as opposite to intrinsic, is motivation that comes from outside an individual. But, at the same time we have to make sure that they “digest” the knowledge provided properly. And that is where assessment comes in. Assessment is a complex system so let us define it as a system.

Generally speaking, classroom assessment consists of two chief types of activities: collecting information on how much knowledge students have learned (measuring) and judging about the competence of learning (evaluation). Both the measurement and evaluation aspects of classroom assessment can be achieved in different ways. To determine how much learning has occurred, teachers can, for example, have students take exams, respond to oral questions, do homework exercises, write papers, solve problems, and make oral presentations. Teachers can then evaluate the scores from those activities by comparing them either to one another or to an absolute standard (such as a “5” equals 90 percent correct).

Measurement is simply assigning numbers to certain attributes of students, according to a rule-governed system. For example, we can measure student’s level of mathematical reasoning by counting how many problems were solved correctly, or check students spelling by counting the number of mistakes made. In a classroom or other group situation, the rules that are used to assign the numbers will ordinarily create a ranking that reflects how much of the attribute different people possess [1].

Evaluation involves using a rulegoverned system to make judgments about the value or worth of a set of measures [1]. What does it mean if we say that a student has answered seventy five out of one hundred grammar test questions correctly? Depending on the applied rules, it can either mean that the student has learned the body of knowledge well and is ready to proceed further, or, vice versa, it can mean that the student has gaps in knowledge and requires additional instruction. But then again, why is it necessary to assess student’s learning? Well, the first, and the most obvious reason is to provide a clear and useful summary of how well a student meets learning objective. When testing is done for the purpose of assigning a letter or numerical grade, it is often called summative evaluation since its primary purpose is to sum up how well a student has performed over time and at a variety of tasks [2].

Second reason to assess students learning is to monitor their progress. Every teacher wants to know if his or her students manage with the pace of learning and have understanding of the covered material. It is always possible to adjust for students going “faster” or “slower” than average, and it is better to be done sooner than later. Because the purpose of such assessment is to facilitate or form learning and not to assign a grade, it is usually called formative evaluation. [2]

A third reason follows from the second. If a teacher discovers that a student has difficulty keeping up with the rest of the class, he will want to know why to determine the most suitable course of action. This purpose may lead to create an assessment (or to look for existing one) that can provide specific diagnostic information.

A fourth reason for assessment is the fact that it has potentially positive effects on various aspects of learning and instruction. As Terence Crooks points out, classroom assessment guides students' "judgment of what is important to learn, affects their motivation and self-perceptions of competence, structures their approaches to and timing of personal study (e.g., spaced practice), consolidates learning, and affects the development of enduring learning strategies and skills. It appears to be one of the most potent forces influencing education. Accordingly, it deserves very careful planning and considerable investment of time from educators. Many of the skills and attitudes that are goal of education take years to develop, and their development can be undermined by lack of consistent support from them in the educational experience of the students" [3].

So, as you can see, role of assessment in learning is hard to over-estimate. And as our discussions with teachers showed, all of them understand why assessment is to be performed. Typical teacher can spend about onethird of his time engaged in different types of assessment activities. Yet despite the time spent assessing student’s learning, it is a task that most of the teachers dislike and many do not do it well. One of the reasons for that is little in-depth knowledge of assessment principles.

Just as assessment is multifunctional in the classroom, teachers have several ways to measure what students have learned. The choice depends, of course, on the stated objectives. Objectives can be classified in terms of two broad categories: knowing about something (for example, past simple is used to tell about past events, pronouns are used instead of object’s name) and knowing how to do something (for example, how to form past simple, how to use pronouns). Numerous methods use to measure both. One we would like to talk about now is test.

And as it often happens with languages and translation there is a huge difference between what is meant by a word in English and Russian. Once I translated a meeting between English-speaking Australian engineers and Russian-speaking process engineers, which lasted for about two and a half hours, and almost hour and a half was spent discussing what each party understands by “cold commissioning” and which tasks are to be performed during that period. And same may happen with the word “test”. In English, “test” means an examination, trial or assay.

As mentioned by Gilbuh Y.term "test" is not clearly defined even in psychology. One of the most general definitions of psychology test is: “classified for monitoring and description of individual’s behavior using a scale or conceptual system “. [4]

Such a polysemy can easily lead to inaccuracy, and sometimes even simple quizzes or training exercises can be called “tests”, which is not true, because tests, when being made, have to conform to certain rules. Definitions of “test”, found in national literary sources are various, and sometimes contradict each other. Let us look at just a few of those:

S. Voskerchyan defines test as short, technically simple trial, providing equal conditions for everybody, having tasks susceptible to quantitative accounting, and can signify a development stage of given function with given testee. [5]

In A. Mayorov’s opiniontest is a tool, consisting of qualimetrically adjusted task system, standardized procedure, and predesigned result processing and analysis procedure, used to measure qualities and properties of a personality. [6]

E.Shtulman sees test as experiment method, and defines it as control task, held in equal conditions, with its type and duration related to objective factors, and results can be quantitatively assessed, being an indicator of learning process results [7].

Just whose idea was all this testing? In ancient Greece, Socrates tested his students through conversations. Answers were not scored as right or wrong. They just led to more dialogue. Many intellectual elites in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. cared more about finding the path to higher knowledge than producing a correct response. Today, educators often hold up the Socratic method as the best kind of teaching.

Historians call the rise of testing an inevitable outgrowth of expanding technology. As goods and services are delivered with greater speed and in higher quantity and quality, education has been forced to pick up the pace.

Standardized exams have many sources. In imperial China in the A.D. 7th century, government job applicants had to write essays about Confucian philosophy and compose poetry. In Europe, the invention of the printing press and modern paper manufacturing fueled the growth of written exams.

By 1845 in the United States, public education advocate Horace Mann was calling for standardized essay testing. Spelling tests, geography tests and math tests blossomed in schools, although they were rarely standardized.

At the outset of the 20th century, educators began to experiment with tests that took shortcuts around the old essay methods. French psychologist Alfred Binet developed an intelligence test about 1905. Frederick J. Kelly of the University of Kansas designed a multiple-choice test in 1914. Scanning machines followed. Many Americans accepted these tests as efficient tools to help build a society based on merit, not birth or race or wealth.

As for Russia, pedagogical science, developed in the beginning of 20th century, accepted tests as objective control method. But after decree of Communistic Party Central Committee «On pedagogical distortions in the educational system of peoples education commissariat » (1936) not only intellectual, but even progress test were abolished. In the middle of ХХ century, testing reappeared in soviet pedagogic as control method, many authors, referring to experience of western schools, were speaking up black and white for or against testing, without considering not only subject specifics, but even multiple interpretations of the definition of “test” itself.

In republic of Kazakhstan, testing became prevalent after 1995, when after decree of Education Ministry “On implementation of testing forms for accreditation of Higher Education Institutions” universities were proposed to go over to tests for knowledge evaluation.

But no matter the definition or history, test remains a method to evaluate student’s knowledge, and as any such method, has its own advantages and disadvantages. And not each test is a good test, but only one made with consideration of requirements to a test and when conducted, students are not allowed to communicate.

Tests are better used for mass knowledge check in a department or university. To make such large-scale checks more effective, it is always better to use computer technology, standardized answer sheets etc. that allows quick collection and analysis of data. And when we speak of final test, it is better to be held with a person who was instructing students on that very subject absent.

Test can be more objective than traditional forms of examination, with results being independent of examiners’ personality. Test results are easy to evaluate and calculate. Number of students taking the test at the same time can be bigger compared to traditional forms of examination. It is also worth mentioning more positive motivation of students as the assessment is not subjective and there issue “bad luck” or “lucky hit” with pulling a exam paper is disposed of.

Results of testing are more representative due to unified procedure. Various tasks can be included into the test, which increases quality of control and allows performing overall assessment. Tests are more practical, valid and reliable.

Another distinction of a test from traditional, e.g. written, exam is stimulation of cognitive activity. That is one of the major peculiarities of a test, each has a master form prepared, which allows students to compare their answers to the master form and correct his study.

And last, but not least, is change of teacher’s role. He ceases to be just a “punisher”, whose job is to give scores and control. He becomes more of a tutor, helping students and guiding them. This new role helps to improve emotional environment greatly.

The reverse of the coin would be the complexity of creating a good, reliable and valid test. For it to be the near-ideal examination method, test should be made in compliance with all the rules and regulations for a test, which is very difficult.

This may sound antinomy, but test can also decrease cognitive activity, as there are ready-made answers provided and the test itself is aimed at result. One more thing worth mentioning is that students can involuntarily memorize wrong answers, especially if the test is very complex.

Another argument supervenes from the previous, and here I would like to quote a friend of mine, PhD in Engineering, who was lecturing in University of Queensland. What he said is that “… a test allows to check the knowledge of fact, whereas to be a specialist, you cannot do only with facts, it is more about whether you can think critically and be able to solve problems”. That is especially true about engineering, but also valid for language proficiency.

One of the main arguments, that the adversaries of testing supply, is that a test is always good for a person sitting it, because if you do not know the correct answer, you always have a second chance, which is guessing. Test based exam can be often turned into a guessing game, and even a poorly performing student can discard at least two obviously wrong answers, which leaves him with three to choose from (if we take multiple choice test with five answer options). And that is a very high chance to make a good guess.

So the test is not the ideal method of examination, but it can be a very good one, when correctly applied. But there remains and issue with standardized national test, which caused lot of dispute when first appeared. The debates have dwindled since then, but the issue remains. The biggest issue, which is on the surface, is the validity of tasks within those tests. There were numerous reports and rumors of course, of many and more questions just

being unreasonable, hard to understand, or having no or more than one correct answer. They say there is no smoke without fire, but we can just brand these test as invalid on the basis of some rumors and reports, not proven with facts. There is a detailed study going on at the moment which would, hopefully, help reveal all doubts.

But there is one thing about standardized test which is true, and which was mentioned many times during my discussions on this matter with University teachers. They all say that standardized tests, being result oriented, as all tests are, make education process aimed towards the test itself. Teachers complain that the aim of the educational process is no longer telling students about, let’s say, philosophy, teaching them wisdom of the past, but to supply them with a set of facts sufficient to pass the Intermediate State Examination test. The Examination influences University rating, and if it is not high enough, teachers risk to suffer displeasure of the administration. Therefore, they do their best to make sure students pass the test. And is you imagine that some of the answers claimed to be correct in the test are actually wrong, teachers would be giving their students wrong information just to make sure they get the highest score possible in the test.

Test, as any other examination method, remains a tool for assessment. And as any tool it can be more or less efficient given the task it is used for. But as any other tool, when improperly used it can do more harm than good. But let us not jump to hasty conclusions, the more detailed study will allow weighing all pros and cons to make an outcome beneficial for the education in Kazakhstan.



  1. Linn & Gronlund, Measurement and assessment in teaching, 7th edition, 1995.
  2. Biehler & Snowman, Psychology applied to teaching, 8/e, Houghton Mifflin Co.1997.
  3. Terence Crooks, The impact of classroom evaluation practices on students, 1988.
  4. Гильбух Ю.З. Метод психологических тестов: сущность и значение // Вопросы психологии. –№2, 1986.
  5. Воскерчьян С.И. Об использовании метода тестов при учете успеваемости школьников. // Сов. педагогика, №10, 1963.
  6. Майоров А.Н. Мониторинг учебной эффективности. // Народное образование. 2000. №1.
  7. Штульман Э.А. Методический эксперимент в системе методов исследования. Воронеж, 1976.