Sunday, September 11, 2011

Avoid the “Correct-Answer Compromise”

Think back to the last time someone tested your performance, whether it be in a classroom, on the job, or at home. What exactly were they testing? Was the goal to determine whether you’d memorized facts correctly, whether you could perform a certain task as expected, or did the test, in whatever form in was administered, measure your deep understanding of a skill, process, problem, or discipline?  

My students assess my performance all the time in their heads, I’m sure, and at least once a year they get to do it on paper. Occasionally (not enough, in my opinion) someone in the English department will come and observe my teaching and then chat with me about it later.

When I was in graduate school, I was mainly assessed through writing because I studied poetry and, before that, English education. As a matter of fact, I can’t remember taking a traditional test or quiz in years besides the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), on which, I don’t mind revealing, I did relatively poorly. Supposedly the GRE was meant to assess my ability to proceed successfully to graduate school. I took it toward the end of my first of two quite successfully earned graduate degrees, making the test, in my mind, superfluous, and my scores reflect that attitude, and the fact that I’m just plain not good at those kinds of tests. (This is a disclaimer in a sense because I may be more inclined to defend such testing if I were better at it, but given what I understand about assessment, that’s doubtful.)

The GRE is a genre of testing called formal summative assessment that students undertake in every state in the union, the kind that continues to be controversial. You’re probably more familiar with the term standardized testing, and you’ve likely taken more than one version of it if you went through public schooling in America. There’s the SAT and ACT for college admissions, and each state has its own test for students in grades K-12. In the state where I received most of my schooling, Louisiana, it was called the LEAP test. It sounds so energizing and forward thinking, doesn’t it?

Summative assessment is just what it sounds like; it sums up what a student has learned after a period of time. Generally, its purpose is accountability. School systems need to prove that students have learned certain skills or universities want to ensure that incoming Freshmen have what’s needed to be successful at their institutions, so they administer summative assessments to collect data. Of course, the validity and relevancy of that data is questionable.   

But I don’t mean to get bogged down in the politics and minutia of standardized testing in this blog post. There are plenty of great venues designed just for that, like this Facebook group called “OPT OUT of State Tests: Parent/Student Support Against Standardized Testing” and this persuasive article published in Minnesota English Journal called “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” I highly recommend looking into both.

Instead, I want to warn against what I see as the inevitable outcome of the standardized testing culture we’ve been inundated with for decades, what Howard Gardner calls the “correct-answer compromise” in his book The Unschooled Mind.

The “correct-answer compromise” is an unspoken agreement that teachers and students enter into when they’re placed in a system that doesn’t value deep understanding, contextual relevance, and the ability to transfer knowledge to new and unfamiliar situations, all signs, according to Gardner, of successful schooling.

The compromise goes something like this: The teacher communicates, Since I can’t teach you to be a problem-solving, critical-thinking citizen of the world in this environment, I’ll teach you the correct answers that will comply with the expectations of those at the top of the hierarchy so you can pass whatever tests they throw at you, and you can move on to the next hoop that you’ll have to jump through. And the student agrees, Since I’m part of a system that’s disconnected from the reality in which I live and since I don’t understand the relevance of much of what you’re teaching me, I’ll consider myself a success if I can choose the correct answers on whatever tests you give me, regardless of where they come from, who they’re for, or what they measure.     

Think about the last class you took. How did you know you were successful?

This is a complicated question, as most questions related to education are, but there are some significant ways of identifying success without making the “correct-answer compromise.”

  1. Learning should have an obvious purpose. Students’ schooling experiences shouldn’t feel disconnected from the rest of their everyday lives. The concepts they’re introduced to in the school setting should relate and connect in relevant ways to their personal, social, and community contexts. Part of a successful educational experience is one in which students understand why they’re doing a specific task and how that task might relate to a variety of different situations.
  2. Learning should be measured in authentic ways. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been asked to complete a multiple-choice or short-answer test to get a job or perform the jobs I’ve been hired to do, whether that be waiting tables and delivering pizzas or running a child-care service and teaching college students. Authentic assessment requires students to use their knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems and engage in realistic, if not real, activities that demonstrate a deep understanding of the concepts they’ve learned. It also provides evidence that students can apply their learning in unique and complex ways, which is an invaluable skill in the world awaiting students and the one with which they’re engaged regularly outside of school.
  3. Assessments should reflect desired outcomes. Let’s look at standardized tests and ask, based on the format of these assessments, what are the desired outcomes? Arguably, these tests provoke students to look for one correct answer to all questions, regardless of the question’s complexity. They reflect a desire for students to memorize a set group of information out of context and to understand no reason for using the chosen information. In other words, standardized tests promote lower level thinking rather than higher order skills such as analysis and evaluation. So, if this is problematic, what should assessments reflect? How about the ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives; the desire to try new ways of going about a task, risking failure in the process; and the ability to reflect on one’s growth from the beginning of a task to the end. If students are able to solve problems within a recognizable context, create unique artifacts, and articulate their process, then administrators should have little to worry about in terms of accountability. Those students are prepared for the complexities of the “real world.”
  4. Assessment should be a learning tool. If students only see assessment as a hurdle to jump or an end point, they will continue to buy into the “correct-answer compromise,” and consequently, they’ll learn how to play the system so they can get on with more meaningful aspects of living. If, however, they see assessment as a process of setting and meeting goals, of growth and discovery, then it will become a mode of learning. Formative assessment, essentially the precursor to summative assessment, allows teachers and students alike to adjust their performance to improve student outcomes. It allows students to make mistakes and take chances, and it gives teachers a way to reflect on their practice in order to do what’s best for students. 
There’s no doubt about it; we want our students to be accountable citizens. This is precisely why we have to fight tooth and nail to avoid the “correct-answer compromise” when it comes to measuring what students are learning. Otherwise, we’re teaching them that their experiences in school are arbitrary and that they have no real say in what they become or how they get there. Everything we do should be a valuable step in helping students become their best selves.



  1. I enjoyed this blog.
    I never understood the SAT test. People have different learning styles so how could a group of people possibly come up with a test that would cover a whole diversity of people based on some scores which would determine their future?

    1. Thanks, Nora! Standardized testing is a huge problem in this country, and also a huge industry, which is one of many reasons it's so difficult to get school systems to move away from using them.

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