Aligning Testing with Teaching and Learning: Reflections on the Dehumanization that Standardized Testing Brings

Fr. Dr. Benedict Dada Zele

The Catholic University of Malawi

Faculty of Education

The basic argument of this article is that for healthy educational environments, testing must match with teaching and learning. The article acknowledges that academically, Malawi has entered a “testing season” characterized by mock and secondary school entrance examinations. The mock examinations which come in plurality will culminate in The Malawi National Examinations Board (MANEB) standardized national tests namely, The Primary School Leaving Certificate Examinations, The Junior Certificate Examinations, and The Malawi School Certificate of Education.

While learning necessarily includes assessment, educators must not cease to reflect on the dehumanization that standardized testing may bring. Dichotomizing or delinking teaching and learning with testing leads to dehumanization. Author of We want to do more than survive, Bettina Love laments how knowledge may be measured against the gaps that systems have created. When all learners matter, no one will create varying conditions for acquiring knowledge and subject the leaners to the same testing. Consider this story arising from the author’s experience of laboring as an educator for nearly two decades.

The 2021 Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations are in progress. On the morning when Physics Paper II – Practical Paper begins at 10am, the headteacher of Wakulawatha (pseudonym) community day secondary school (CDSS) gives the science teacher, Mr. Tingoyesa (pseudonym) the confidential. The confidential reads that among the required apparatus to be provided to candidates are 200g masses and 25ml measuring cylinders. Mr. Tingoyesa who joined the teaching staff recently after being promoted from the primary school, immediately remembers that the budget for apparatus and chemicals met cutbacks. So, the school never purchased masses from laboratory apparatus and chemical suppliers. As an innovative teacher, he fills plastics bags with coarse soil to measure 200g on a beam balance. Upon the commencing of the examinations, Mr. Tingoyesa notices that the relatively larger masses cannot fit into 25ml measuring cylinders. Utterly confused, he urges the candidates to use beakers instead of the measuring cylinders. He is aware that the learners are being tested on apparent loss of weight to calculate upthrust force associated with Archimedes principle. He is also aware that the candidates were never taught the Archimedes principle. Mr Tingoyesa has no illusions that the candidates cannot provide correct readings because of the faulty apparatus and cannot explain their observations and correlate relationships from their observations because they never learned Archimedes principle. MANEB inspectors on a random check enter the room. They scold the science teacher and invigilators for starting the practical paper one hour late but completely miss the predicament of the candidates.

This factual story prompts deep deliberations on grievous anomalies surrounding standardized testing. The first question readers may ask concerns what kind of school Wakulawatha CDSS is. To which the author of Just research in contentious times, Michelle Fine would answer that the kind of school where students, parents, communities, and educational administrators tolerate what is unthinkable for the elites. There are schools whereby failing to finish the syllabus is unthinkable and there are schools whereby failing to finish the syllabus is normalized. Curriculum developers, ministry of education and MANEB officers only need to branch by any nearest CDSS and take an interest on student notebooks. They will surely affirm that learners will enter the MANEB examination room with glaring gaps.

Another question people may raise is on the existence of gradations and disparities of learning environments. To which Marxists may say that it is an example of contradictions in society whereby the wealthy and the powerful cleverly exploit and benefit from the labour of the commoners. One only needs to look at the character of pigs in George Orwell’s animal farm. Using rhetoric, Squealer explains that pigs need milk and apples to work for the benefit of all the other animals. Infuriatingly, greed in animal farm as is elsewhere, is justified as a great sacrifice.

One may also wonder why there were cutbacks on necessary items such as examination apparatus. To which most change agents would explain how poverty generates poverty in its vicious circularity. Moreover, change agents would testify that hardly do you find bureaucrats and donors who accept being guided by those working with the communities impacted by injustices. In this case it was counterproductive that the authority of the headteacher suppressed the request of the science teacher to buy laboratory chemicals and apparatus.

People may go on interrogating why learners from contrasting teaching and learning environments are given the same standardized test. To which researchers may reply that it is the way marginalized populations become dehumanized through systems which normalize injustices. Somehow, this is like giving a Fortuner to one Mr. X and a bicycle to another Mr. Y at Nsanje boma to find out who gets to Blantyre first. The irony lies in how Mr. X who was given the Fortuner is celebrated as the winner of the race.

There are questions which may seek to know what inspection misses in the messy educational settings. An observer may answer these questions by noting that inspection gazes on procedures and methods without delving deep into the stories and experiences of educators and their learners. It focuses on evaluation, instead of providing support to learners and educators who are assaulted by the education system.

Someone may also probe how standardized tests violate the right to education in situations where faulty apparatus, not completing the syllabus, and logistical contingencies disadvantage some learners. Recently, MANEB has been responsive to such situations. However, those who have read Courts and the poor in Malawi: Economic marginalization, vulnerability, and the law will testify that poverty is enmeshed with factors such as socio-cultural norms and politics to attenuate the strength of the legal voice of the marginalized populations and the response of courts to the social rights claims of poor people.

The list of questions may be endless. What needs to be reiterated is that the approaching of The Primary School Leaving Certificate Examinations, Junior Certificate Examinations, and The Malawi School Certificate of Education provide a favourable time to reflect on aligning testing with teaching and learning. Empirical data suggests that the schools which perform well are schools where teaching and learning thrives.

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