Critics of tests and exams often argue that such assessment tools are neither valid nor reliable. They hold that a student's performance on standardized tests is a better measure of the examinee's attention span and understanding of the test makers' logic rather than a measure of content mastery. Judging a student's understanding of a semester's worth of information based on a 60 minute exam seems especially unfair to students with test anxiety.
Though written assignments eliminate some of those concerns, exams remain a standard assessment tool for good reasons. Most teachers use a combination of both tools to fairly evaluate each student. Consider the unique benefits of using exams and written assignments:
Benefits of Exams
Sitting exams ensure that students are not receiving outside help. In the technological age, plagiarizing is becoming easier and easier. In a controlled setting, students must draw upon their own resources to prove that they understand material.
Many jobs require high-stake performance evaluations. Though you will likely never have to identify lines from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, you may have to memorize the product codes of every fruit and vegetable in a grocery store.
Exam grades are easier to quantify. Assigning a grade based on responses to multiple choice questions is easier than creating and using a rubric for a writing assignment. Exam grades are viewed as more objective and therefore are easier to explain to angry students and parents.
Exams are inevitable. Testing starts in elementary school. In order for the government to collect national samples, standardized testing methods are as simple and objective as possible. Teachers are encouraged to shape their curriculum around state instruments, so they create tests to prepare students for bigger tests. The PSAT is practice for the SAT, high school exams are practice for college exams, and college exams are practice for the GRE, LSAT and MCAT.
Benefits of Written Assignments
Students can take time developing their ideas. Proponents of written assignments argue that test anxiety puts many students at a disadvantage. A smart student can easily get a bad test score if they are sick or having a bad day. Written assignments take more time and energy, so they are a better assessment of a student's understanding.
Though exams can test higher order thinking skills, written assignments always do. Written assignments can be open-ended; students can pick their own topics, allowing them to apply what they are studying to things they are actually interested in. The research process helps students get a more comprehensive understanding of material than simply memorizing facts.
Writing is a dying art. Many high paying occupations require writing, so students who excel at writing will have a strong competitive edge in the job market.
Should teachers expect all students to perform equally well on exams and written assignments? Should teachers assess students only by their strengths? Teachers should ponder these questions while bearing in mind that high stakes exams probably are not going anywhere anytime soon.
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