A test-ament to a good education?

So you bombed the exam last week. Does that mean you’re a dumbo, likely to fail in life? No? So you think pencil-and-paper tests aren’t real life?

Then you’re probably a citizen educated in the good ol’ U.S.A. I know that because you have hope beyond exams. Students in the United States have chance after chance to fail and try again. “There are a thousand ways to bounce back,” says Howard Gardner, a Harvard education professor. "We live in a country of “infinite second chances.”

Contrast that to Britain, where I completed my graduate education. Traditionally you were streamed in Britain into a university or non-university study track at about age 13. How? You took a test. That country has loosened up the old standards, but it’s still true that if you get into college you’ve already chosen a career path. At university level, your entire success depends on only one, or at the most two, sets of texts in three years. In many other countries, too, consequences of choices made very young squeeze children into a lifetime path. If you blow off a year at a bad time, you’re unlikely to get another chance.

In those cases also, those who assess you rely on—what else?—standard written exams. And standard written exams on knowledge usually include mostly standard fact-based questions: Who invented the telephone? What is the formula for salt? Calculate the circumference of a circle. List countries participating in World War I. What are the principal exports of France?

How do you answer questions like these? Easy: one, you study under teachers who pound on memorizing this specific, fact-based information, and two, you spend a lot of time at home memorizing. This is indeed what passes for learning in many countries, and it helps to explain a peculiar contradiction in U.S. education: on the one hand U.S. high school seniors score at the bottom of international math and science tests compared to most countries. On the other hand, the United States is the world’s intellectual and industrial leader.

How do I explain this? The answer is part of the test-taking dichotomy described above: information is not learning. If that were true, Trivial Pursuit champs would be our deepest thinkers. In fact, true knowledge is the ability to understand with flexibility and speed the implications and potential of information in a variety of situations; to built something we don't know based on a structure of what we do know. That requires, certainly, some memorization, but more, the freedom to explore and poke at bounds of knowledge without fear of indelible penalty. “Like America, science is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor, a kind of child ’s play, where little attention is paid to getting it right immediately and there is little stress on canons,” notes Dudley Herschbach, Harvard chemistry professor and 1986 Nobel laureate.

Maybe we do permit high schoolers wide latitude to try all sorts of disciplines, sometimes without coming away with much for an exam. But at college, those students bring with them the courage to approach a topic with creativity and innovation, instead of textbook dictates and fear of fatal error. Yes, it’s not a neatly-packaged, testable system. But neither is the “real world.”

In truth, gaining real knowledge, as opposed to rote memorization, depends on freedom: freedom of speech and press, freedom from government dictate, freedom even to fail and get another chance. Don’t we say that’s what America is built on?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that hard study and good test grades don’t make a difference at all. Nor does it mean our schools couldn’t be better—we all know of bad schools, and failed students who end up on the streets, in the courts, and on the skids. But do international comparisons of written exams point to a solution, telling us that other countries’ students are somehow “smarter” than ours because they do well on those tests? Perhaps—for conservative pundits and comic strip artists.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <www.ndsu.edu/communication/collins>