Tests, tests, and more tests! Are they the answer?

Today politicians, state level education leaders and many others in educational circles are going around and around about the value of high stakes testing, what and how those tests should be constructed, when they should be administered to students, and in general how we can bring up the scores of “failing schools”. Sadly, and often admitted by school personnel and others, placing sole evidence of student success and with it teacher effectiveness, measured on such narrow criteria, is highly damaging to schools, their teachers, and the lives of students both while they are in school and when they assume the roles of adults in what we hope will be a democratic society.

We pay lip service to the development of “standards-based objectives” forming the basis of our curriculum development. Tests, we are told, should align with those standards. Fine. No one would object to that premise. Yet we are leaving out several questions that are not being addressed:

  • How should adults be able to perform in order to be considered productive workers, responsible family members, and concerned citizens?
  • What attitudes, perspectives and skills should each person have to become aware of, concerned about, and competent in dealing effectively with the many social problems they will encounter as adults?
  • How can these ideas be developed with increasing complexity and skill development from infancy to adulthood?
  • What roles fall upon schools to provide the background leading to the successful attainment of these kinds of concerns?
  • How can the schools nurture the collaboration of families, churches, social agencies, and state, local and federal governments to support the development of environments that lead students toward these broad goals?

Once we reach a general consensus about the kinds of behaviors that exhibit the kinds of persons we envision, then we can develop standards that are reflective of these goals. However, are these the sole province of schools? Of course not. Preparing young people to enter tomorrow’s world rests upon  many sectors that students encounter and react with every day. The key toward success rests with those persons in each sector recognizing their roles in the process and how they can help students to interact within all of the parts of their learning environment.

This becomes extremely important because the success or failure of student learning rests with many different groups and organizations and is not the sole province of the schools. Actually, the emphasis that each group has will differ from one community to another.  Therefore, it is important that each community develops leaders that can guide groups and organizations to work together effectively, moving toward a shared vision of what kinds of adults the community wants its young people to become.

The role of the schools becomes extremely important, but it doesn’t exist alone. Its role becomes one of not only providing specific learning opportunities for its students but also of leading the community through guidance toward a shared vision.

Once these goals have resulted in shared objectives, the means to assess progress must be developed. Is this a school project? One for the community? A state program? Perhaps a federal activity? The answer has to “YES” to all! In varying degrees there are roles for each. The relative importance of each will be different in different communities.

For example, at the federal level we currently have the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Each year a sampling of students nation-wide is taken and general levels of reading and math attainment are calculated. This is a fitting role on a national scale. There are no results for single school districts or even regions within a state. We get a broad, general picture, not results to identify local strengths or weaknesses.

The problem with the NAEP is not with the general administration of the tests. Rather it is in the uses of the tests for state comparisons when no one has spelled out standards that meet the concerns of each state. Validity of results come into question when there isn’t even agreement that the test actually meets each state’s priorities consistently.

The most important problem we face with current assessments whether administered locally or state-wide is that one-time short answer testing has become the alpha and omega of evaluation for individual students, for teachers, for schools and school districts, and even for states. Whether it’s a state test, an SAT, or a locally administered achievement test,  current public assumptions rest on short-answer test scores. Claiming that these results are valid for general purposes of educational attainment is ridiculous. They measure a narrow base of learning and skills. To make the leap from these conclusions to assessing student success or failure, teacher effectiveness or ineffectiveness, or school achievement levels is a travesty.

Everyone should support valid assessments both within schools and for the learning that takes place out of school. But it has to be linked to the goals and expectations similar to those identified above.

  • Where should at least 13 years of education lead our students?
  • How can we build goals and objectives to move students toward our vision?
  • What tools can we use that will give us valid measures of how well students are progressing?
  • How can these tools enable us to help students, both individually and as groups, move more effectively toward our targets?

If, as communities, as states, and as a nation, we can begin to make strides in these directions, then we have a chance to again become the world’s leader in educational attainment.

What specific things can be done? Here’s an excerpt from an article in Edutopia, the journal of the George Lucas Education Foundation. Read it. React to it. Comment on it. Let’s get to thinking and acting to make a difference.

How Should We Measure Student Learning?: The Many Forms of Assessment

The demands of the today’s world require students learn many skills. A knowledge-based, highly technological economy requires that students master higher-order thinking skills and that they are able to see the relationships among seemingly diverse concepts. These abilities — recall, analysis, comparison, inference, and evaluation — will be the skills of a literate twenty-first-century citizen. And they are the kinds of skills that aren’t measured by our current high-stakes tests.

In addition, skills such as teamwork, collaboration, and moral character — traits that aren’t measured in a typical standardized tests — are increasingly important. Businesses are always looking for employees with people skills and the ability to get along well with coworkers.

Multiple Forms of Assessment

We know that the typical multiple-choice and short-answer tests aren’t the only way, or necessarily the best way, to gauge a student’s knowledge and abilities. Many states are incorporating performance-based assessments into their standardized tests or adding assessment vehicles such as student portfolios and presentations as additional measures of student understanding.

These rigorous, multiple forms of assessment require students to apply what they’re learning to real world tasks. These include standards-based projects and assignments that require students to apply their knowledge and skills, such as designing a building or investigating the water quality of a nearby pond; clearly defined rubrics (or criteria) to facilitate a fair and consistent evaluation of student work; and opportunities for students to benefit from the feedback of teachers, peers, and outside experts.

With these formative and summative types of assessment come the ability to give students immediate feedback. They also allow a teacher to immediately intervene, to change course when assessments show that a particular lesson or strategy isn’t working for a student, or to offer new challenges for students who’ve mastered a concept or skill. Return to our Assessment page to learn more.

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