Assessment: There’s More than One Way

If we would look at the present state of education assessment clearly and critically, we would have to throw up our hands and laugh. Or maybe just throw up.

Across the nation (and in many parts of the world), we accept the silly notion that a once-a-year high-stakes exam, a summative assessment, can reveal exactly how well our students have learned, and thus how well our teachers have actually taught, and thus how well any particular school is performing.

Of course, real-world teachers know that there are many, many factors in high-stakes testing outcomes, including such obvious factors as a student’s nutrition and health (including emotional health) on test days, and the elephant in the living room: some students have figured out that you can sabotage test scores. “Oh, no student would ever do that!” test proponent opine. Yeah, right. Teens would never do anything to sabotage desired results by adults in charge of them. In truth, most kids try hard and do as well as they can, but I have seen teens deliberately set out to sabotage scores. In my little school, this resulted in our not meeting AYP one year, and although this doesn’t sound like much of a problem, it was a huge  problem in our district and for our school.

Of course there are other ways to assess student learning. The most familiar is formative assessment, where you assess a student’s levels at the beginning of the year and as we move along, so we can see what she has actually learned and where the gaps are in her understanding. In this way, we can pinpoint instruction to help our students.

One argument against formative assessment is that it is too hard to track, but in these days of computers, I think it’s no argument at all. It’s very easy to look at a chart and see who didn’t quite get the order of operations, say, so we can help them learn it.

However, if we could just give up our obsession with cut-and-dried test scores, we could move to a more accurate assessment, which would reveal mastery. In this model, students would actually have to demonstrate their skills in real-world applications. Such applications might include projects, experiments, portfolios, and so on.

Of course, such alternative assessments require that legislators, who hold the purse strings, give up the antiquated and harmful notion that teachers are fat cats who will suck up fat salaries (hardly!) and shirk the hard work of educating students (oh, please!). In my experience, most teachers are passionately dedicated to helping students, innovating and sacrificing every day to improve their kids’ lives.

Teachers are smart. They can tell whose projects show real understanding. If we could just give up the unfortunate pressure on teachers to produce ever-higher test scores, we could release them to find and document more accurate assessments of students actual mastery.


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