Words do matter: why "objective testing" is a harmful expression



I recently heard in two different situations the expression “objective testing,” referring to tests which can be easily assessed by anyone as long as that person is in possession of an answer sheet. In other words, tests which include true/false, multiple choice, or other such “click the answer” questions.

I have to admit that I was puzzled when I heard this expression for the first time. First, I did not know what it meant–and I was not the only one. Another faculty, who also did her schooling on a different continent, was confused as well. Second, if there are “objective” tests, then it must be that there are “not-objective” ones as well, or perhaps subjective tests. So the question may be, what does “objective” mean in this context?

One may reasonably imply that such tests show with precision whether students know the material or not. However, many people working in higher education agree that using “objective” tests rather results in students studying how to pass the test, regardless of whether they understand the material or not. No one asks you for reasons why you chose “a,” “b,” “c,” or “d” in an “objective” test. This is why we speak of people who perform well on tests and people who do not. Thus, objective tests may show how much students are prepared to take a test, and not how much they understand the content of the course. Just consider this example: students may easily recognize that a certain clause is the definition of a concept, but have no idea what that definition actually means.

But if such tests do not “objectively” assess the understanding of students, they are called “objective” for a different reason: they imply that the grading is objective, that the instructor cannot bring into the process his or her subjectivity. Other tests, then, such as essays, for example, are not objective. It is actually a slap on the face of the faculty, even if it is not intended as such.

The phrase “objective testing” is a very harmful one, one that suggests that the instructors can be accused of subjectivity in grading. It is a culture that produces complaints and the transformation of education in “justification for the grade.” It is also a culture that produces “test-takers,” because it is easier and less problematic for both the providers of education and their clients (and I use notions from economic transactions on purpose) to just learn how to take tests. Students study for tests, and instructors don’t need to spend time reading essays, commenting on them, and justifying grades.

Here is a consequence of this emphasis on “objective” testing: I could start wondering why I spend hours reading papers, entering into dialogue with students on these papers, and commenting on them so that students would hopefully read these comments and perhaps write better next time. Can’t I just use a scantron, an “objective test,” and thus have peace of mind? Wouldn’t I have more time to write my own papers, to read books? “Objectively” speaking, wouldn’t it be rational for me to choose an “objective” test instead of opening myself to the potential criticism of students who may perceive me “unfair” when grading papers because I do not use “objective testing”?

But really, this is not a claim that what is called “objective” testing is not valuable. Different situations may call for different solutions. The problem comes with calling such testing “objective,” as if other tests are just “second-class citizens” in the world of testing.
Words do matter. In this case, the use of the expression “objective testing” may just be a symptom of the potential (and I say “potential” because I want to remain optimist) transformation of our education system into a factory that produces uniformity, lack of thinking, and an army of “objective-test-takers.”

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