When educational policy makers first caught assessment fever from the business world some twenty years ago, like many teachers, I assumed it would pass as so many educational trends do. Instead, it has hung on and grown and grown, to the point that educational assessment has become a mega-business for corporate conglomerates like Pearson, who employed forty-eight thousand people last year in publishing textbooks, programming curricula, and administering digital standardized tests. According to their annual report, Pearson made over seven billion dollars on education last year. Many public schools administer multiple standardized tests every year, and some Christian schools are following suit.
The current assessment craze rests upon a series of presuppositions or claims that remain largely unchallenged. I’d like to describe and discuss three of these claims, questioning whether more formal standardized assessment is actually not the ultimate solution to improving student learning and wondering where would that leave us.
Claim #1: We need to assess more frequently so that teachers are better able to differentiate instruction. I think there is a very real difference between the way testing companies think differentiated instruction works, and the way master teachers understand differentiated instruction. Testing companies envision teachers sitting down during their ample free time and looking at a screen that shows the slow and steady growth of each of their students in a subject such as reading. The teacher sees that one of their students, Dennis, seems to have fallen below grade level in his reading. A quick analysis of his scores reveals that he needs more vocabulary instruction. The teacher makes a note to start him on the intervention response curriculum later that afternoon so she can get him back up to grade level.
There are a lot of assumptions in this approach. The first is that instruction is best differentiated through reflection and analysis. I would guess that some of the best differentiation moments in a teacher’s career come in the heat of a lesson, when an informal assessment reveals that a student’s eyes are glazing over and the teacher zeros in on that student with an analogy or example that finally connects. Some excellent differentiation occurs in response not to formal assessment, but in response to informal assessment, and not in a quiet reflective moment, but in the heat of teaching.
Second, this presupposes that more regular assessment will be helpful in pinpointing exactly when a student begins to struggle. Think of the graph that many first or second graders make showing the growth of their windowsill bean plant. The students measure their plant every day, and after a couple of weeks, they connect the data points to make a nice even curve. If instead, they would measure the plant twice a day, or even every hour, that would give them a more clearly defined curve, right? Well, not really. See the plant doesn’t grow much in an hour, so the curve really won’t change. And, of course, our students are not bean plants. They tend to have far more variables. They are more apt to have good days and bad days. And so assessing them too closely might actually give us a less clear line; it would reveal the week-to-week variations.
Finally, using reading again as an example, the idea here is that it is possible to come up with a meaningful reading level for each student and then slowly climb an inevitable ladder to full education. In fact, though we can average out such a thing, the reality is a bit trickier. We all read at different reading levels depending on our interest and previous knowledge in the subject, the presentation of the material (just text, text and illustration, or Web site with sound, etc.), as well as our purpose in reading it.
In addition, it may not always be the case that less common vocabulary and lengthier sentences equal more difficult texts. Consider a typical Dr. Seuss book. It contains extremely uncommon words like lorax and thneed, yet a second grader can understand it through the illustrations. A typical reading level analysis program is likely to classify it as being much harder than it is. Now think about a book by Ernest Hemingway. His work contains short, common words and short sentences, and yet the content of his work is full and nuanced. Again, the readability formula is likely to misclassify it as being easier than it is. So learning to read is obviously a bit more complicated that just proceeding from one Accelerated Reader level to the next.
Claim #2: Students learn better when teachers make clear what they will be assessed on and how they will be assessed. The assumption behind this claim is that all learning functions the same way memorization does. So when elementary students are learning their spelling words, they know that if they want full credit, they have to get all the words right. Why should learning how to write a paper for English class or doing an observational project for biology class be any different? If we give students a clear rubric that explains the level of achievement we intend them to reach, they will achieve that level and all will be well. And I suppose that is true if we only want them to achieve the level we envision them reaching.
But here is the problem. Our students are efficient. They have to be. So if I tell students exactly what is required to achieve an A on their English paper, they would be foolish to spend any more than the absolute minimum time and effort necessary to achieve that A. Unfortunately, what makes a good writer an excellent writer is reaching beyond the ordinary to the utmost they can do. I once had a writing class where the teacher looked at our work and commented on it on a weekly basis, but never gave us any grades. Because we did not really know how we were doing, we worked our hearts out. We learned a lot about how to write—far more than if we had just done the minimum.
You might well point out that this works well for highly motivated students, but what is to stop struggling students from giving up? I would argue that assessment works both ways here. If I assess my struggling students early on in the semester, before they have had a chance to achieve anything, it is as bad for them as for the high-achieving students. Confronted with a low grade, they will give up. I am not suggesting they get no feedback at all, I am suggesting that feedback and encouragement and suggestions would be excellent, provided they are not accompanied by a formal grade from the start.
This also has an effect on the content we learn. If each lesson I teach begins with a recitation of the goals for that day, I am limiting the range and scope not only of our discussion, but also of our discoveries. If I am clear about the limits of what I am teaching and how I will assess, I can expect my students, on a reading assignment for example, to search for what I would call looked-for knowledge. This is like reading with a fill-in-the-blank sheet at your side. You skim the material looking only for the word that fits in the next blank, ignoring whatever else the text might have to offer. Actually it was my English 380 students at Trinity who pointed this out during a class discussion a couple of days ago, an observation that went a bit outside the perimeter of my lesson plan.
In contrast, a more open-ended reading assignment or class discussion allows for the possibility of emergent knowledge, the possibility that you and your students, working together, might discover a new insight, a new way of understanding, and new way of explaining a concept or notion. And the reason that emergent knowledge is so important is that it may be the moment that the class discovers the joy of learning that content. That may just be the sort of awareness that carries them into a passion for a topic and maybe even a calling for their lives.
Claim #3: Formal standardized tests are the most effective and reliable form of assessment. This is one of the most deeply held yet unexamined presuppositions in education today. When we give our students standardized tests, we observe silence, special procedures, and great care. We consider the results much more seriously than we do the results of a whole semester’s worth of assessments we have given, and far more seriously than our own informal assessments. And yet, standardized tests, almost by definition, only check a small part of student understanding and potential, which is not really in line with what we believe philosophically and theologically as Christian teachers.
Standardized tests rely on a very narrow set of measures, almost all objective, almost all requiring the student select from a limited range of answers. They do not provide much of a window on students’ thought processes; they do not offer an opportunity for a student to explain their answer; they penalize creativity and deliberate thought, and they reward speed, a particular kind of quick analysis, and a particular kind of narrow, intense focus. They assess that which is easy to assess, typically vocabulary, answering multiple-choice questions about a reading passage, mathematics, special reasoning, and language understanding such as analogies. They do not assess creativity, the ability to construct an argument, the ability to help people reach a consensus, physical ability, musical ability, artistic ability, different ways of seeing the world, vision, imagination, leadership, spiritual growth, gentleness, caring, concern and passion for the brokenness in the world, the ability to encourage, the ability to be an engaging speaker, brainstorming ability, the ability to mentor or nurture, or thousands of other things that make each child of God important, invaluable, and worthy or praise.
And more troubling, once we buy into the idea of standardized tests, we tend to buy into the statistical norms that go along with those tests. If we have a third grade student who is reading at a second grade level, we panic and seek some kind of intervention. Now, to be sure, that is a good and caring impulse, but it presupposes that all students should grow and learn at the same pace. God does not seem to have designed us that way.
So what am I saying? That all formal standardized assessment is bad? No, but we need to perhaps stop thinking of them as the pinnacle of assessments. Informal assessments made by professional teachers, project-based assessments that leave room not only for mathematical and linguistic skills, but also imagination, creativity, interaction with others, initiative, situational problem-solving, and many other ways of thinking—these are closer to ideal. Maybe we still need standardized formal assessments every couple of years to allow us to compare our students to national averages, but perhaps we can all agree that introducing even more of these assessments can serve no useful purpose.