Thursday, 15 November 2012

Let's Talk About....Pencil and Paper Tests

It's that time of year....

For us in the southern hemisphere, we are rapidly approaching the end of our academic year. This means report writing and assessment, sometimes in that order.

And when he thinks of assessment, a young man's heart quickly turns to pencil and paper tests. 

So I think it's time we sat down and had a talk.

What are the good things about pencil and paper tests?

1. They are convenient for teachers to administer to a large group of students. If convenience is a priority in education, then pencil and paper tests are the way to go. And sometimes when you have to assess a really large group, like the entire population of the country, this seems the best way to do it.

2. They give you quick results. Yep - you certainly get a result - a number, a score, a grade. And it is these numbers and grades that are required of us by parents, administrations and government offices. 

3. They can assess knowledge. SOMETIMES a pencil and paper test will also provide an insight into student thinking and how they are approaching a problem. RARELY will a pencil and paper test lead to an effective assessment of higher-order thinking. MOSTLY it will focus on knowledge, understanding and application. 

4. They are what we are familiar with. We are comfortable with them as teachers. They've been around for years. We did them when we were kids and we turned out alright. 

5. They are "fair". Everyone gets the same set of questions so everyone gets an equal chance to perform. They are designed by professionals (ie you and me) and are worded to avoid bias, cultural prejudice and advantage to any particular class or group. 

What are the bad things about pencil and paper tests?

1. Their convenience for teachers can indicate a lack of formative assessment and informed observation. I have done this myself when I have not been attending to formative assessment of students during maths inquiries. To quickly throw together a "pop quiz" or similar task is effectively an admission that I took my eye off the ball and I'm trying to get back on top of my assessment by taking short cuts. Not good pedagogy.

2. They reduce student understanding to a score or grade. While this may be a requirement (certainly in my country - if we don't give A-E grades we lose government funding), it is meaningless. How can one student's entire mathematical experience be summarised in one of 5 assessment grades?

3. They do not reveal the depth of thinking and understanding of the student. Pencil and paper tests provide little opportunity for students to actually explain what they mean. Our Australian national testing system (NAPLAN) requires students to choose from multiple choice answers and colour in a circle that is corrected by a computerised scanner. Even the four or five open questions at the very end of the testing require no more than a series of calculations or correctly worked algorithms. 

4. The "old ways" were designed for industrial-revolution style education factories. 21st century education is heading in a different direction. It is no longer satisfactory to maintain ineffective pedagogy just because "it is the way we've always done it". We need to be thinking of new ways to assess which may involve collaboration, open communication between students, sharing of resources and ideas, presentations of multiple solutions to open-ended tasks...

5. They are not fair. Having the "same" test is not the same as having an "equal" test. All students bring their own personal, physical, cultural and social baggage with them into the classroom. This is why we differentiate. How can you explain on a pencil and paper test that your blood sugar is low (or high)? that your parents are separating? that you've never been on a train? that you've never seen a $100 note? that you have a migraine? that your allergies are playing up? that the boy next to you has been bullying you for the last 4 weeks? that you can't think straight when the teacher puts a timer on and says you have 30 minutes to complete the 7 page test?

So what?

Well, this rant may not have done much for you but it has certainly helped me clarify a few of my own ideas:

1. I think pencil and paper tests have (very) limited value.

2. I think I need to be more creative in my design of assessment tools.

3. I need to re-examine my pedagogy and ask the big questions again..... why am I doing this? is this the best way to do it?


  1. I completely agree with your thoughts. My constant struggle is that parents are often very anxious that their children are going to experience testing at secondary school and believe it is best for primary schools to mimick secondary school edagogy to prepare them for this. Communicating that conceptual understanding is best developed and assessed by giving students the time to play with possibilities, develop their own understandings then reflect and communicate their learning can bend met with skepticism by many parents. I would welcome any advice or success stories from upper primary experiences.

    1. Well said Matt. We do need to educate parents about what we do and how it has changed in the last 25 years. One convincing argument is to refer to the workplace of the parents - how many of them are dissatisfied with young employees who only know what was in the test and have no practical application skills? The children we are educating today need to be able to think creatively and apply what they know in constantly changing contexts - memorising chapters out of a text book will never prepare you for this.


Any comments you would like to make?