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Testing is the use of tests and exams in the assessment of knowledge. Some well-designed tests, can provide a good assessment of knowledge and reasoning skills.

Problem of testing

The problem with testing is that it is usually compulsory and pre-announced. Compulsory high-stake testing involves stress. Tests announced in advance promote cramming. Cramming promotes asemantic learning that leads to focus on low-quality short-term memories. This short-term focus results in interference, poor memory stability, poor coherence, increased forgetting of unrelated portions of knowledge, etc. Testing also adds stress, undermines sleep and increases the hate of school.

Multiple-choice tests can provide a good knowledge assessment tool, and yet encourage winning strategies that lead to harmful forms of learning based on memorization without comprehension. This magnifies the damage produced by testing.

Testing for short deadlines pushes kids to learn in the regress zone due to the violation of the Fundamental law of learning. It favors cramming and de-emphasizes the importance of long-term memory. See: 50 bad habits learned at school.

Testing should only be used as a research tool. If absolutely necessary, testing can also be used by companies and institutions as a filter in processing an unmanageably large number of applications. If schools use testing as an admission filter, they risk losing fantastic students.

Testing is one of the major contributors to the harm of schooling

Test taking strategy

One of the best test taking strategies is to take trial tests before the actual test. This shows that tests are not a good measure of knowledge. A great deal of success in tests depends on knowledge that it test-specific. As the brain is a perfectly adaptable device, those who take many tests do well on tests. Students who exercise free learning may trip on the slightest peculiarities of a given (e.g. notational conventions). This way, the best independent students may belong to those who are most handicapped on a test.

Limitations of testing

Despite its limitations, testing is widely used in schools. As we are subjected to testing in all imaginable fields, we seem to associate testing with the quality of knowledge. However, knowledge coherence is very hard to test. Applicability depends on the person, her knowledge, and her goals. Domain-specific creativity is hard to test. Many tests, including PISA boast of their emphasis on problem solving, however, they make little distinction between problems solved, for which we have developed necessary algorithms, and problems to-be-solved that cannot be part of the test because nobody knows the answer.

An easy illustration of the limits of testing it to imagine a situation in which we are to find out if someone will be a good friend. Can we have a test for that? Can we ask questions about the character, the temperament, or personal interests? Even a conversation may not be enough. Friendships are built over decades. A test for a medical school may be used as a useful filter, but it won't determine who is likely to become a great physician, let alone a great researcher in the area of medical sciences.

For a wider discussion see: IQ is a dismal measure of intelligence

Motivational role of testing

Learning for a test may be motivational in some circumstances. It can even change one's life if it coincides with some prior interests. However, most often than not, tests are used as a stick to enforce harder work. A feedback loop forms, in which things that turn out bad on the test, must be tested harder, may bubble up in importance in the curriculum, may be scaffolded at earlier years, and may increasingly be despised by the young population. As a result, more work, more testing, higher priority, and more hate follows in the next iteration of the cycle. This process leads to the emergence of the asemantic curriculum, which is an anathema of efficient learning. Asemantic curriculum is one of the key factors of school hate (see: Why kids hate school). Build up of leeches in SuperMemo is a simple illustration of the mechanism by which testing pollutes education.

Stress of testing

One of the greatest harms that comes from testing is a student's stress. John Holt observed:

The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know

If the stress is self-imposed, it can become motivational (eustress). If it is strong and unexpected, it can be acute stress that does little harm. However, if a child is constantly being reminded that a "big test" is on the horizon (perhaps four years away), the test can turn into chronic stress, which is a prime destroyer of young minds. Here is an account from a 15 year old, which is a vivid illustration of the problem: The demon on my shoulder is dead

Displeasure of testing

Not all tests cause displeasure, but some have an uncanny capacity to force the mind away from the test to the big question: "What am I doing here?". As this user from Korea wrote:

This is the SAT English problem, but my eyes turned around in the first two or three sentences and I stopped reading

The test question allegedly aimed at verifying knowledge of English was:

33. Heritage is concerned with the ways in which very selective material artefacts, mythologies, memories and traditions become resources for the present. The contents, interpretations and representations of the resource are selected according to the demands of the present; an imagined past provides resources for a heritage that is to be passed onto an imagined future. It follows too that the meanings and functions of memory and tradition are defined in the present. Further, heritage is more concerned with meanings than material artefacts. It is the former that give value, either cultural or financial, to the latter and explain why they have been selected from the near infinity of the past. In turn, they may later be discarded as the demands of present societies change, or even, as is presently occurring in the former Eastern Europe, when pasts have to be reinvented to reflect new presents. Thus heritage is __________________. [3 points]

① about preserving universal cultural values

② a mirror reflecting the artefacts of the past

③ neither concerned with the present nor the future

④ as much about forgetting as remembering the past

⑤ a collection of memories and traditions of a society

A person versed in speed-reading or incremental reading will instantly skip the whole text and jump to the last line to save time, however, the wording of answers is not about understating English, it is about reading the text. Even when writing this line I had a major dilemma: read and verify, or just "leave as is". On Feb 28, 2021, Guillem Palau asked native speakers active in SuperMemo community to answer the question, and no one got it "right" (as prescribed in the answer key). However, being native is not much of an advantage here. Pointless reading feels like an incredible waste of time. Each time we read, we seek knowledge, and immerse in the context to achieve bigger goals. Reading contextless snippets with no semantic goal can become mental torture. The only goal in this test is to make the right checkmark. This is a formula for a bad habit that can affect one's approach to reading for years to come. My deepest sympathy to all those who need to take such tests to progress in their careers.

Further reading

This glossary entry is used to explain "I would never send my kids to school" (2017-2024) by Piotr Wozniak