We don’t need exit exams but quit hating on tests

Prof. Pettigrew on the Collegiate Learning Assessment

When I was in high school, my favourite teacher was an old-fashioned English instructor I will call Mr. Hunter. One day, we wrote a test in class. I can’t recall the precise format for the test, but whatever it was it wasn’t the sort we were used to. When we were done, each our tests was graded by a fellow student. Then, to our surprise, Mr. Hunter had us say aloud what grade we got on the test so he could record it in his grade book.

I doubt teachers could get away with that today—privacy or self-esteem or whatever—but as the numbers were read, it became clear that the students we all knew to be good students had scored well, and lesser students, not so well. At the end, Mr. Hunter looked up and smiled and asked, “It doesn’t really matter what kind of test it is does it?”

I think about that class from time to time when I am pondering my own testing procedures, and I thought about it again recently when I was sent this little polemic about the new Collegiate Learning Assessment in the USA. If you haven’t heard, the CLA is a test that will be taken by graduating students to show just how much they have learned while at university.

There’s plenty to hate about this scheme. For one thing, it’s yet another instance of universities grovelling at the feet of employers, desperately trying to gain their approval through data. Second, the test has been created largely because of the perception that grades don’t show anything. I doubt that’s usually true—but if it is, that’s a problem with the university itself. If your grades are meaningless, then you have big problems in your school—with your curriculum, or your faculty, or your academic administration, or something else. If you can’t stand behind your grades, you might as well close your doors.

All that said, there is one objection, presented in article linked above, and bandied about by students everywhere, that is, in fact, too easy, and I can’t let it pass without mention.

The objection is typically some version this: “There is no point in writing such a test, because tests don’t prove what you know, just how good you are at taking tests.” Such complaints are typically aimed at standardized tests like the GRE or LSAT, but I often hear variations of it from students, who lament that test results depend, not on mastery of the material, but rather on test-taking ability alone. A common variation is the protest that the student might “have a bad day” as if to say, they knew the material on Tuesday and Thursday but somehow drew a blank on Wednesday.

Of course, a few students may have genuine physical or psychological difficulties which could make test-writing harder—but accommodations can be made in those exceptional cases. And it’s probably true that a savvy student may be able to pick up a few extra points on some kinds of tests. But for the most part, tests really do test what they set out to test.

Which brings me back to good old Mr. Hunter. You see, as every professor knows, good students tend to do well no matter how they are evaluated. The top essay writers also tend to earn the highest grades on tests. Because many of the same skills pertain: hard work, intelligence, passion for the material and so on.

Think about it: if only test-taking-skills mattered, then the English major who aces her exam on the Victorian Novel should be able to walk out of that one and right into a Quantum Physics exam, and without having taken the course, ace that one too. Which is, of course, absurd. All the clever tactics in the world won’t help you if you don’t know the material.

All of which is to say that when it comes to the CLA, there are plenty of problems. But the fact that this test is a test isn’t one of them.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.