TED Conversations

Doug Edwards

This conversation is closed.

How well do you think test/exam scores predict a person's future success with a particular subject?

Test and exams seem (I'm using the word "seem" very intentionally) to be a way to measure what someone learned in the past (after having taken a course for example).
But can tests really predict what's important? That is, future successful action!


Closing Statement from Doug Edwards

Thanks everyone for your contribution to this question. If I had to summarize: you think that tests alone (some intelligence tests excluded) are not enough to make a prediction, but are mainly useful to see a student's progress (or lack of it). Your thoughtful answers were very helpful to me.

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    Mar 2 2014: well!! from all the tests we write and the exams we take. they just make us educated and eligible for the jobs and not make us smart. education may give us the job . its only smartness and the WILL that make us successfull !! there shouldnt be exams.. there should be js teaching .. teaching to make us know the meanings of life ans realise the originality of life!!
  • Mar 1 2014: No,for theoretical test.
    Yes,for practical test.
    And sometimes the test/exam cannot predict the successful action,because successful action needs much more than technical skills.Non-technical skills also play a significant role in future successful action.

    A person can take theoretical music lessons and may pass the tests/exams with distinction.But,when asked to compose a music may not be able to do so.

    A person can take theoretical lessons on car driving and may pass the tests/exam with distinction. But, this may not predict that he/she will be able to successfully drive the car without making an accident.

    Future successful actions need this :


    And the life takes its own examination and tests to test all the above mentioned qualities, and one who passes the test of life succeeds.
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      Mar 2 2014: I enjoyed your "equation." Thanks!
  • Feb 28 2014: I think it depends greatly on the test.

    A natural intelligence or aptitude test, I think is a highly accurate determination of future ability.

    A specific skills test, or knowledge of a specific subject that will actually be used in a particular field of employment is also likely to be highly indicative. That is, a test on C programming for someone that intends to be a C programmer, or knowledge of plumbing code for someone that will be a plumber, or a test of cutting hair for a barber...

    But, much of what we teach in schools is, at best, secondary to job skills. A history test for the C programmer, a physical science test for the plumber, a geometry test for the barber... Meh. Probably very little correlation to actual job performance.
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    Mar 9 2014: I think that tests have gotten a bit too big for their britches, if you take my meaning. They're a good efficient way to see what students have learned, but it kind of ruins the purpose when you base the curriculum around the test, rather than the other way around. I think the best way to deal with the problem is to have regional and state conferences where the teachers themselves come up with a mass curriculum to base the tests around, and at the same time individualize actual teaching. When I was diagnosed with Aspergers, I know I got the full treatment. People would come in, make sure the subject made sense, making sure that I could understand what was going on in the classroom. As for the actual question being asked, nothing can really predict how successful someone will be in a subject, only time can tell, so we should stop treating tests like the be-all end-all of education.
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    Mar 7 2014: Wow, so Einstein flunking is a myth! Good to know. Following curiosity would certainly be more fun than taking a test. Thanks Laura for the excellent contribution here!
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    Mar 7 2014: What an interesting question! I will have to say that the myth of Einstein flunking math tests has been proven to be just that, a myth. In an interview concerning the "legend" that began being perpetuated when he was still alive, he tersely rejected the notion.
    On the other hand, here is an excerpt from one that I found in critical thinking.org:
    "Most people think that genius is the primary determinant of intellectual achievement. Yet 3 of the all-time greatest thinkers had in common, not genius, but a questioning mind. Their intellectual skills & inquisitive drive was the essence of critical thinking. Through skilled & persistent questioning they redesigned our view of the physical world & the universe.
    Consider Newton. Uninterested in the set curriculum at Cambridge, Newton at 19 drew up a list of questions under 45 heads. His title: “Quaestiones,” signaled his goal: constantly to question the nature of matter, place, time, and motion.
    His style was to slog his way to knowledge. For example, he “bought Descartes’s Geometry and read it by himself. When he got over 2 or 3 pages he could understand no farther, then he began again and advanced farther and continued so doing till he made himself master of the whole . . . ”
    When asked how he had discovered the law of universal gravitation, he said: “ By thinking on it continually. “ This pattern of consistent, relentless questioning, led to depth of understanding & reconstruction of previous theories about the universe.
    Darwin’s experience & approach to learning were similar to Newton’s. First, he found traditional instruction discouraging. “During my 2nd year at Edinburgh I attended lectures on Geology & Zoology, but they were incredibly dull. The sole effect they produced was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology, or in any way to study the sciences.”

    So, maybe curiosity trumps test scores? :)
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      Mar 9 2014: I like your answer, Laura. Thank you for taking the time to share your interesting and enlightening contributions.

      How could you then motivate or inspire students, or anyone for that matter, to develop "this pattern of consistent, relentless questioning", so that they will "develop depth of understanding" just like the scientists and thinkers you mentioned?
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      Mar 4 2014: Yes Moe, I imagine too that when schools give out grades, they also give out judgements about a person's worth since so much value is given to the grade. If a student is not aware, they could buy into this judgement about themselves that they are "dumber" or "smarter" than others - because the grade said so. Thank you.
  • Mar 1 2014: I think tests might be an indicator for aptitude, level of current understanding, or ability to remember something recently read or heard.

    I think perhaps overall academic performance might be an indicator of work ethic.

    A lot depends on the test, the subject, the circumstances,and the relationship between the test material and what is applicable to the job.
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      Mar 2 2014: Thanks Robert. Yeah, it does seem reasonable that overall academic performance might be an indicator of work ethic. I wonder how we could well one predicts the other - You've given me something to read up on.
  • Mar 14 2014: Sadly, in order to succeed in the world, you're going to have to be able to do well on tests. There's no foolproof way to check someone's aptitude on any particular subject, but I think tests are quite good at this. The best teachers I've had don't give tests in the traditional sense. For instance, my music teacher has me learn theory, but he also has me play the piece. If I can do both, the endeavor is judged successful. All of my rambling has a point. If you do well on tests, you will have a better opportunity to excel in the important stuff. However, I also think that if we change the definition of test or exam (test knowledge as well as ability), those who do well on tests will have a deadlock on success.
  • Mar 12 2014: Yes, it predicts a person's future because with this you can measure how serious one is about his future. it shows somebody's interest and worry about his career.
    • Mar 13 2014: I think it also depends on what a person goals for their future actually are. For example a person whose goal it is to be a painter will perhaps not be so worried about studying for a math test. Whereas a painter who considers that they may need to know some math in order to sell their paintings may take more interest in the math test. Yet each of these two people could be equally serious about their future career, they are just considering it from different perspectives.
      In fact, what if our painter accepts that he has no acumen in math and hires someone with this skill instead; this combination may perform better than the mathematic painter who tries to do both jobs.
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    Mar 12 2014: Interesting point "failure is great." I agree that failure can be valuable feedback. Thanks Ben.
  • Mar 12 2014: About as well as the format predicts the trajectory of future thought.
  • Mar 12 2014: it depends on how the test is set up. if it is just testing absorption of knowledge then it can't predict a person's future success well at all, but if it is skill-based, meaning it tests a student's competency of the subject material, evaluating how well they've developed an ability to analyse and solve problems characteristic of the subject, then yes. a well written test is a test of how well students can apply on their what they've learned in class, and well constructed classes enable students to take future successful action, in the test and then beyond. unfortunately these days administrators (who are not teachers and usually never have been) often assign more knowledge-based tests because they're easier to quantify.

    that said though i think these days too much stock is put in avoiding failure. failure is great, it helps us learn what we are not particularly good at, and can save us years of wasted effort in pursuit of something that will always be easier for others. knowing what you're not good at is important in narrowing the search for what it is that you will be very good at.
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    Mar 12 2014: Thanks Salim. It is astounding to find so many people are not working in the discipline they studied in school.
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    Mar 12 2014: I really like your idea about about keeping the grades private - and only using them to help students. Would be nice if we can't tap into the motivation kids have for learning video games for their school studies! Might not need so many tests then.
    Thanks Bhushan.
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    Mar 11 2014: Thank you Blanche for your contribution.
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    Mar 11 2014: In my country at least test / exam scores are just a predictor of how efficiently one could swallow a subject during her/his class or preparatory stage for exam then later how efficiently one could vomit during the moment of truth of exam time. So it seems to me a certification process of that nothing more nothing less.

    As many people choose / are bound to choose to be in a profession or area which has a very minimum link with what s/he learned once in class room success depends mostly on something else other than that what s/he scored once in exam. Even if someone remains within her/his subject area even then also score will not help for two reasons which are

    First any subject is not static so after having high score if one stops learning s/he may become obsolete
    Secondly even if s/he is updated but don't apply what has learned from practical point view then again it will not work.
    Last not least interpersonal skill , communication skill , own passion etc seems are more important to be successful.
  • Mar 10 2014: This is a interesting topic, its sorta a catch 22. Lots of times test are used to determines a persons future, like applying and being accepted into Major College Universities. Most colleges require a certain score on the SAT for applicants to be accepted into their University, being accepted into these Universities could greatly impact the success of a persons future by providing them with the right network of individuals that they go through school with. Not to say the person who doesn't get accepted doesn't have a good chance of being successful, its just a little easier for those who do.
  • Mar 9 2014: Tests are important. I cant imagine students being motivated enough without them.
    Grading them too is important. We want to know if our students are capable enough. If we dont grade them, how are we to know if there's some problem with the teaching? Also, we can pick out the introverts who need help but dont really participate in class.
    However, I dont think that anyone but the teacher shold know the ggrades. That would remove all the unhealthy pressure and competition off these tests. Students who do underperform should be given extra care and help though.
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    Mar 9 2014: Interesting Lejan - when I taught mathematics and statistics, I observed very little desire for people to understand the material - emphasis was on being able to do it, without much understanding. I noticed this as a student as well.
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    Mar 9 2014: Thank you Adrian. I wonder how different curriculum would be if the teachers themselves designed the curriculum? Interesting statement!
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    Mar 9 2014: Thank you Blanche. I appreciate the link - very good reading. Next: was this your answer to my question? Or do you have something personally to contribute in addition to the study? If so, I'd love to hear from you again.
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    Mar 9 2014: On this I don't even think, I know, that exam scores does not have any predictive value at all! Any given positives are purely coincidental!

    Take me for example. One of my two best exam results at the university was a straight A in electrical engineering class, in which I didn't have any clue what I was doing at all. I simply choose and used the right formulas by chance and just calculated correctly what was asked for within the test.

    Up to today electricity is one of the unsolved mysteries in this, in my, universe ...

    Certainly I manage to install plugs and to wire some home electricity successfully, but do not ask me why it works and how ... :o)
  • Mar 9 2014: Simply, they cannot. School is often a measure of intelligence. The problem is that these tests the students are taking are not measuring how much they know, but how well they can memorize information. As a high school student myself, I see first hand that students are not even earning these grades. Kids are getting better at cheating on everything from essays to exams. Their grades are not showing how smart they are,they are showing how well they can cheat.
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      Mar 9 2014: It is truly important to realize that the culture of your high school is not the culture of every high school, but also that you might be able to influence the culture of your high school if students get together to do something about this, which would also have the support of the adults in the building.

      One thing that reenforces a culture of dishonesty or corruption in an organization is precisely the belief that "everyone is doing it."

      It is similar to the way some schools have seriously problems with bullying and others build a culture that doesn't tolerate it.
  • Mar 8 2014: I don't think tests/exams are an accurate indicator of ability or a predictor of future success. If you do well in an exam that is great. It shows a level of understanding and sure the individual may do well. Then there is the individual who bombs out and may be so put off by the experience that does nothing and such a low score may predict he will not do well. Then there is a group of people who don't do well. Maybe bomb out but are challenged further by this and in fact do really well in that field when working in it, For example, you bomb out in real estate law yet in training you have to do it. These individuals do well, are more likely to be thorough and precise about it and so make better real estate lawyers. I think future success can not be measured by tests/exams.
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    Mar 8 2014: Test and Exams can't judge your excellence. They can only judge your ability to handle the pressure developed. If I am not wrong, handling situation is also an excellence but if going deep into something take out the best of us.
  • Mar 8 2014: I think it does , if its geared towards being able to use this knowledge practically.....but i wouldnt support those without any practical relevance and neither would i support teaching and teaching without tests!...how then can we assess to see how good the concepts thought ve been assimilated?.. on predicting what happens in the future, now that's quite different...when it comes to humans the future is almost always uncertain...there are alot of influences that also play a role: like determination, perseverance, hard work, dedication and others( with some even making sense of what they learnt yrs after they ve taken their exams)
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    Mar 7 2014: I suppose that memorizing a lot of facts could mean that you could use those facts to synthesize action of value in the future, but the opposite could be true. Perhaps tests like these could only test a person's memory, rather than ability to use the knowledge.
    Thanks Maria!