Using Old Tests? What's The Fuss?


January 23, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

This just in. Harford teachers are teaching their students how to take state achievement tests. And they are using available copies of old tests given by the state.

So we've got Trouble right here in Harford County and that starts with T and that rhymes with C and that stands for Cheat? No way.

When educators bemoan the inferior performance of students on measured standards of academic learning and ratiocination, when they complain that the school programs are not preparing youngsters for the challenges of the outside world, what are they expected to do?

They are expected to teach their young charges how to catch up and how to cope with these problems.

If one of the problems is a lack of test-taking skills, then teachers should instruct their pupils on how to prepare for and tackle a standardized test.

That's not wasted time, nor is it cheating. It is preparation for a task, one that is likely to be encountered by these children later in their schooling, when they apply for college or when they apply for jobs.

I know there are parents and teachers and children who argue that too much class time is spent in preparing for tests. Certainly the proliferation of mandated tests has reinforced this belief. One primary schooler came home last week and told her parents: "It's a waste of time-- you either know the stuff or you don't."

The fact is that knowing how to take a test, and actually practicing it, can be almost as valuable as acquiring a lot of information without any idea of how that information will be required to be presented in a test format. That's why test preparation has become a lucrative business for private education firms and why they typically promise their instruction will improve scores on standardized tests.

Everyone takes tests in school and writes papers, but those tasks don't have quite the same structure as the widely used performance tests.

Knowing how to take a test won't assure success if the pupil doesn't have the knowledge and thinking skills to apply to the test. But it is another tool to add to the package of education.

If some schools and teachers overemphasize test-taking preparation to the detriment of other valuable instruction, that's a matter of balance that needs to be remedied.

What was at issue in Harford was that ninth-graders taking the state's functional writing test had been preparing with test topics given in previous years.

And the two topics used by the state test in 1994 were the same ones these students had been using for classroom practice.

It was coincidence that the state re-used its 1988 topics in the year that Harford happened to use the 1988 topics for classroom preparation, as The Sun's Suzanne Loudermilk reported. There was no skulduggery or attempt to cheat on the state test.

State officials say it is unlikely to affect greatly the individual outcomes of the 2,500 Harford students taking the test, one of those required for graduation in Maryland.

Since the overwhelming majority of kids pass that test anyway, the officials are probably right.

But I wouldn't bet that it won't make a difference in this particular test, for those students who are on the border.

I recall an advanced algebra final I took in high school. The teacher held a review class for students to get help on problems that had stumped them during the year.

I asked him about a weekly test question that I did not understand. He explained it to me. That happened to be one of the problems on the already-printed test and I got it right because it was fresh in my memory.

Having a good file of past tests has always been a priority for college dorms and fraternities. It's been a point of pride for many houses, a valuable asset for their residents to use. And it is not widely discouraged by the professors either.

Going over old exams and understanding how to get the correct answers is no small task, for you have to know the material in order to apply it.

Of course, some instructors are lazy or feel that all students should demonstrate the exact same knowledge, which leads to the same questions being used each year or every other year. But those professors are usually well known, and most everyone then knows to study the previous year's tests.

At my college, the old exam files were known as "cram jam," as in cramming for a test. The term was often shortened to jam. At the Naval Academy, I've read, the contemporary label is "gouge," which seems close enough to cram. The issue at Annapolis is different, involving charges that someone stole advance copies of a tough engineering exam and sold or gave them to some Mids.

That's cheating in anyone's book, regardless of any ambiguous honor code.

Yet the matter is complicated by the acknowledged use of old exams by students to prepare for exams. Some midshipmen said they thought the pilfered exam was a final given in the recent past, or a gouge.

But I think that's a distinction easily made by any student, or teacher.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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