Sat, Jan 01, 2011 - Page 8 News List


Tests as a necessary evil

While I sympathize with Liang-yi OuYang (Letters, Dec. 29, page 8), I feel compelled to respond to a number of the issues raised.

First, the disparaging remarks about tests are understandable, but perhaps wide of the mark, which to my mind is not so much the existence of tests, but their content. I never had to endure the Taiwanese examination system, but I have known many who did and observed their frantic attempts to amass reams of disjointed facts and figures in preparation for an ordeal that appears to be little more than a test of memory.

However, the answer, in my view, is not to abandon tests but to change what they measure and how they measure it. I don’t think one would find much dissension with the claim that Taiwanese education is pretty test-driven and students are very motivated to pass. That being the case, we should change the test format from atomistic, “discrete point” tests with their long procession of multiple choice questions and look instead at a more holistic approach that measures not individuals’ knowledge, but their ability to use that knowledge to achieve certain goals.

In language testing, (which I admit is the limit of my own experience), we talk about a “communicative paradigm” that provides a foundation for “direct testing,” a way to measure how well people can put together their knowledge (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation): read a train schedule to plan a trip, take part in a discussion or hundreds of other “language-oriented tasks” we face on a daily basis. I may be a little naive in assuming that what can be done with language testing can be similarly applied to other school subjects, but one thing I am sure of is that tests do far more than just measure. Given that it is in the nature of education to “teach to the test,” such tests can also be utilized as instruments of change, leading to innovations in methodology and syllabus design, which can only be for the good.

My second point considers the writer’s proposal that scholarships be made more widely available. Excellent as this suggestion may be, it begs the question: How do we decide who gets these scholarships? It looks like we are back to some kind of testing again. Even if we make scholarships available only to those with very special talents, there is bound to be competition among each particular group, so we need to systematically and fairly apportion the goodies to the most deserving.

I am not saying that current practices are particularly fair, but we cannot escape the fact that scholarships are — just like higher education — a limited resource which needs to be rationed. The question is how do we do that? One way would be purely through pricing. In other words, jack up the cost of education until there is no need to ration it and dispense with the idea of scholarships. However, I am sure many would find such an inherently unfair system unacceptable, so what is left? The fact remains that we still need a way to discriminate between individuals (notice “between” not “against”) in order to make decisions.

Finally, mock exams. I hated them too, so I can identify with the writer on this point. They may seem exhaustingly unnecessary, especially when students work through countless old exam questions in class, but I think it is useful if such an activity faithfully replicates the environment of the exam room.

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