Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Exam week at SICP.

The next three days at St. Ignatius will be devoted to first semester final exams, some of which I will be proctoring. From what I can tell, most of the finals here seem to be multiple-choice tests of the Scantron variety. If you've taken a standardized test, you've probably seen a Scantron sheet - indeed, you probably have painful memories of the hours you spent filling and perhaps madly erasing and refilling the tiny bubbles of a Scantron sheet in the midst of a high-stakes exam that you thought would determine the course of your life - and perhaps did. Does SICP's use of Scantron sheets for most of its exams help the school's students feel less uncomfortable when they end up taking the standardized tests that most high schoolers dread? It's possible, but I doubt it. My sense is that students will always approach tests like the ACT and the SAT with fear and trembling, no matter how familiar they are with Scantron sheets.

To my mind, Scantron's impact on American education has been both positive and negative. On the one hand, it's hard to argue with the system's efficiency. The advent of exams that can be corrected by machines cuts down on the amount of time that teachers must devote to grading and gives them more time for other activities that can help sharpen their skills - crafting lesson plans, deepening their knowledge of the subject they teach, and even enjoying more leisure time so they'll be more well-rested and relaxed when they enter the classroom. Nonetheless, Scantron and similar technologies also limit the potential ways in which testing can help students grow. I would argue that essay-based exams demand a level of analytical ability and a competence of written expression that simply cannot be tested by even the most rigorous of multiple-choice exams. And then there is the question of objectivity. The anonymity of computer grading eliminates the possibility that teachers' personal opinion of particular students might influence their grading decisions. We've reached a point where computers - albeit not those of the traditional Scantron variety - can also be used to evaluate essays and other written work on the basis of length, word choice and the like. However, even the most sophisticated computer cannot analyze a student's essay with the level of attention and sensitivity that a human teacher can. On the same token, other methods of anonymous grading - such as the assignment of exam numbers which students may put on their tests instead of their names - can help maintain objectivity without dehumanizing the grading process.

It's hard to say what kind of exam I'd opt for as a teacher. The multiple-choice Scantron exam and the old-fashioned blue book essay exam each have their strengths and weaknesses, and I suppose which is best depends on the content of the course in question. In the arena of testing, teachers and students may have to settle for nothing more than 'good enough.' AMDG.


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