To Test, or Not to Test – That is The Question

By Kallie Hoffman 

School should be a forum to acquire an increased understanding of topics in the world, to be able to apply skills and knowledge toward higher education and future occupations and to simply enjoy learning and growing as a person. Sadly, it has increasingly become a place that children fear, because there is anxiety awaiting them at some test or quiz every day. We, students, are subjected to the pressure of two or three exams each week resulting in a climate of performance anxiety. This environment inhibits intellectual curiosity, often removing the joys of learning.

The number of exams has exploded in the past few years to the point where students sometimes have two or three a day, requiring hours of preparation in order to ensure they have mastered the broad range of material that might be included on the tests. As a result, students are more stressed than ever before, and instead of being confined to a particular day or even week, the pressure is virtually relentless. Excessive testing has become a ritual in every school district, so it is imperative that we understand the effects that it has on our students from the perspective of education and mental health.

We must first recognize the advantages to testing. Most obviously, testing enables teachers and students to check their progress and be held accountable for the learning of the material. Grades on assessments can motivate students to improve their study habits as well. If a child is in need of extra assistance, a quiz might help them recognize the importance of approaching a teacher with questions or possibly seeking a tutor after school. Yet when tests are given every day, the pace becomes overwhelming. Some students are reconciled to the weekly demands of testing. Sarah Ilany points out that “I spend at least one hour every night studying for a test, but I know that all of my hard work will show up on the results of the exam and it will be beneficial toward my future.” While students might derive some benefit from learning to deal with the stress of exams, the persistent anxiety of daily testing creates far too much pressure and competition; rather than learning to enjoy particular topics and subjects, student begin to define themselves solely by a score on an exam or how well they performed in comparison to their peers.

A score on an exam can also be misleading, as it often provides an unreliable measure of student performance. Some children have a tendency to handle the stress of exams better than others, but this does not necessarily mean they have a better comprehension of the material. Instead of focusing on creativity, curiosity, verbal communication, writing ability, class participation and other indicia of learning, students are largely judged based off of their test results. Freshman Olivia Frischman is one student who agrees that exams can be unreliable as they only “evaluate performance on one day and fail to measure the extent of [her] knowledge.” The education system has drifted away from the importance of participating in classroom discussions and has relied instead on evaluating students through an intense regimen of testing. Freshman Nic Picca states that “it is the easiest way to see what we are learning, but it puts so much pressure on me to perform, and I am subjected to memorizing the material as opposed to taking an actual fascination in the topics I have been taught.” A child might have a particular interest in science or math, but if they do not perform well on tests in these subjects, they feel inadequate and begin to lose confidence and interest in the area. Simply put, testing impedes opportunities for meaningful, productive learning and helps to detract from our intellectual curiosities.

Moreover, every student at Byram Hills is involved in one or more extracurricular activities that add to their growth and development. Unfortunately, with exams being scheduled so frequently, it can be difficult to attend these events, complete all homework, and allot the necessary hours to study for upcoming exams. In many cases, mastering a topic requires several days to fully understand all the information that may be covered on an exam. Students end up sleeping very few hours a night to stay on top of their schoolwork along with participating in extracurriculars. This can create a downward cycle where students’ performance decreases due to the lack of sleep and overbearing schedules. Worse, students resort to unhealthy study habits such as memorizing the information without appreciating the value of the material.

For these reasons, there are clear benefits to a limited number of course exams. Most notably, the administration of fewer tests creates a certain discipline in study habits as students are compelled to go back through their notes, making sure they have a command of the material. However, since tests are a fact of life and cannot be rooted out completely, an optimal solution is tests given in moderation as with most aspects of life. Freshman Meredith Mayers believes if scheduled at appropriate intervals, “tests check our understanding and help prepare us for finals at the end of the year and our major regents examinations.”

It is essential that we encourage our school districts to shift away from over-testing our students and offer programs that are innovative and designed to promote and stimulate learning. Instead of tests that cover comprehensive material and force students to spend hours preparing each day, there can be a series of smaller quizzes that are clearly limited to a defined issue or topic. Another option is to use test results solely as a means to refine the methods of teaching and not to affect student grades. Tests do provide feedback for students and help them to learn strong study habits, so they should be restructured rather than eliminated. They have value if applied intelligently, but it must be in a way that does not cause consistent stress and anxiety in our children.

We want to build confidence and enhance morale, not create a climate of incessant competition. Let’s encourage our students to write better, to take on group and individual projects, to speak up in class, to challenge themselves with harder courses and subjects, and to help each other learn rather than to outscore each other on competitive exams. Shouldn’t a teacher’s mission be to help students gain knowledge and insight, become confident and curious, and to grow intellectually and as a person?

Learning has the ability to be incredibly stimulating and exciting, but only if children want to be in the classroom. With the aid of administrators, educators, and students, we can create a better system- one that challenges us to learn without the threat of daily disappointment on account of test results. This is a complicated issue, but an issue that demands immediate attention. As is the case with so many of the exams that fill out our days and weeks, the questions are very hard and the answers are not that obvious.