Students used to be smarter?

IMG_20160807_193944I know that some teachers have ready-made tests and like to use them over and over again. It unquestionably has several advantages – it saves the teacher’s time and it is a reliable tool for comparison, i.e. for measuring how a current group of students differs from the previous years’ groups in terms of knowledge and skills. Or is it reliable?

I remember a colleague I used to work with who was rather exasperated by the fact that students’ knowledge and skills deteriorate from year to year so he couldn’t recycle his tests anymore. In fact, he was rather stubborn and he did recycle his tests for some time until he found out it was a waste of time and energy. His temporary inflexibility resulted in bitter disappointment on his part, as well as the students’ part. He was exasperated, as I said, while his students were frustrated by bad grades. He came up with good excuses, though; he said he’d been teaching the same stuff in the same way for many years so it must be the students’ fault – not his. He concluded: students simply used to be smarter.

I’m not sure whether it’s a good idea to recycle ready-made tests this way and I’m not even sure whether students used to be smarter. Surely, they were different. Everything was different. So, logically, the tests must be different.

I recently read an article which shared a very interesting survey. Some experts compared today’s students with their parents’ generation in terms of skills and knowledge (today’s students got the same questions as their predecessors in 1996). And ‘the parents’ lost the game. To cut it short (and simplify it), the survey showed that today’s kids had done better in maths, Czech, and science. The biggest improvement was, quite understandably, in English as a foreign language. The thing is that in the past, we used to be a communist country with a little possibility of travelling. Generally, there were few technologies, such as the internet, and few reading/listening materials, which would have helped us work on our English outside of the regular English lessons. The teaching methods at school were somewhat prehistoric anyway.

So, I believe that while recycling tests can be useful under certain circumstances, doing it just to prove that knowledge is something static and unchangeable, even from the cross-generation point of view, is not exactly beneficial.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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5 Responses to Students used to be smarter?

  1. Thank you, Hana, for another interesting post on an issue that I’ve also pondered for a while now. What you said about your colleague reminded me of Dr Kevin Maxwell’s quote “Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them.”. I see his point about recycling tests, but can this strategy actually work? Each class is made up of unique individuals who are like no other (not even like themselves the year before) and who learn in completely different ways. So, even if we decide to recycle the materials we use we can at least edit or modify them. Now, about students being better in the past. Again I remembered this great post on Huffington Post some years ago: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/art-markman-phd/past-less-intense-than-present_b_987726.html
    I also feel that we tend to look back fondly on the past because we isolate the moments from their context. It’s easier to think of how great students did five years ago without remembering the specifics of the environment/conditions that helped them excel. Society has indeed changed, but if we could look deep inside human soul, I think we would discover that behind the layers of progress and advance, the core remains the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      I love the feeling when the reactions/comments to a post of mine are deeper/more interesting/more thoughtful than the post itself. You put it beautifully, as usual, and I have nothing to add. I can only nod in agreement and sigh in admiration. Anyway, thanks for the reading tip and the amazing quote by Dr. Kevin Maxwell’s. It says it all eloquently. And, last but not least, thanks for being part of my PLN, Maria. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for your beautiful words, Hana! It’s both a pleasure and honor to be part of your PLN, thank you for being part of mine, too! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ven_vve says:

    Hi Hana,

    Hope you had a good summer! 🙂 I’ve always thought the primary reason teachers can’t recycle tests exactly as they are is because the questions get around and everyone starts getting really good grades – or am I being too cynical? I would never have expected that using the same test paper(s) would eventually lead to lower grades. And yet, I don’t think students _were_ smarter before. A very interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi, Vedrana!

    Yes, there’s always the danger that students will spread the word. I have to humbly admit that we did the same. 🙂

    I don’t want to draw any conclusions, but I should probably mention that in the past, the number of students applying for a place at our school was 4 times bigger that the number we could accept. So students took tough entrance exams and only the best ones succeeded. Nowadays, it sometimes happens that the number of applying students is just a little higher than the number we finally accept.

    By the way, the teacher who I’m talking about was not an English teacher. I understand that in some subjects one would be naturally inclined towards test recycling, especially when the number of questions or the amount of matter is rather limited.

    Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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