Better Assessment

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“Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

“Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.

“Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.” ~ President Barack Obama

It’s clear there are many problems with our current assessment-for-accountability regime. Even our president– whose administration’s policies have encouraged a huge increase in the amount of testing students experience– has said that we need to rethink how we approach assessment and accountability.

How should we approach the assessment of student learning in our schools?

As teachers and parents, we care very much what our children are learning. Good assessments can tell us this in ways that guide our instruction, and provide feedback that can help shape our lessons to respond to student’s needs. Teachers also use this information to give feedback and guidance to students, and this is a powerful way to promote their growth. We also need end-of-unit or end-of-course assessments when a lesson is complete in order to see what students have learned.

When these assessments are based in the classroom, they have tremendous power to guide and improve instruction. When teachers are given the responsibility to design assessments, they can discover how much students have learned. Skilled teachers can perform much of this assessment informally, as instruction unfolds. All sorts of student work can provide a teacher with this sort of information – verbal responses to questions, “exit slips” done at the end of a class period, and more formal quizzes and tests.

Teachers are able to assess learning in multiple dimensions. Students can express what they have learned in many ways – through projects, presentations to peers or the public, written essays, or digital presentations. We value learning in all these dimensions – so we must acknowledge, celebrate and assess it. We want to promote creativity and innovation, so we must have ways to assess these qualities that go far beyond the bubble tests.

Our standards for learning have been “dumbed down” to that which can be measured by a standardized test. Our students are capable of learning far more than these narrow measurements reveal. Classroom-based authentic assessments, portfolios and other public displays of student learning are ways we can make learning visible, and schools accountable to parents and the community at large. Let’s raise the bar on the way we assess student learning!

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