Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday's Five - Assessment: Our Students Deserve Better

I've been thinking a lot about assessment lately.  Not "assessment" in the narrow term meaning the high-stakes tests to which we are forced to subject our students, but assessment in the more global sense: how we determine what our students know and change our teaching to make sure they are learning.  That's what assessment is for, isn't it?  Despite the nonsense that is being thrown around by non-educators about the need to test kids to identify bad schools, bad teachers, bad kids, bad administrators, etc., assessment is really about identifying how we can help kids learn more.  The rest is all political mumbo-jumbo that's hurting our kids because it takes the focus off where it should be - student learning.

There are a few reasons that assessment has been at the forefront of my mind lately.  The most obvious is that the last month of school has been a fragmented mess of teachers struggling to promote real learning in the wake of schedule changes, lost teaching time, and stressed students due to mandatory state "assessments."  I've also spent a lot of time reflecting on my own assessment practices as part of my PAEMST application (one of the more grueling and beneficial experiences I've done as a teacher), which is due on May 1st.  Finally, this is the time of year that we place students into their courses for the next year - a practice that has increasingly become dependent on "data" instead of teacher recommendation.

In order to use assessment properly, to increase student learning, here are five things we need to keep in mind:

  1. Use the right tool for the right job.  Often we are told as teachers to "use assessment data to drive instruction."  The problem is that by "assessment data", those making this demand are talking about state assessments, benchmarks, or diagnostics.  You can't make day to day changes that benefit students based on this data.  Learning that one of my students scored low in the "geometry category" five months ago on a state assessment is worthless to me compared with the exit card that showed me that he/she didn't understand that area was a two-dimensional measurement.  The latter allows me to correct the misunderstanding immediately, thus leading to greater learning.
  2. I've heard Chris Lehman say before that educational technology should be like oxygen - imperceptible, ubiquitous, and necessary.  The same can be said for assessment.  We need it and should be using it all the time as a way to guide our students, but if our students are stressed about how they are being graded, ranked, sorted, or judged, they aren't focused on learning.  And learning should be our goal. 
  3. "Assessment" and "Grading" are not interchangeable terms.  Often they are used that way because we tend to want to make everything measureable.  Data doesn't have to be numbers to be useful.  Again, learning should be our focus, not ranking or judging students.  Tests and quizzes will, for better or worse, always likely have a place in schools.  What is more beneficial for students, though:  giving them a 30 on a quiz in which they got 7 out of 10 questions incorrect, or sitting down with that student to discuss their confusion and helping them identify ways to learn what they haven't yet?  "Grading" is something that is done for the benefit of teachers, parents, colleges, and others.  Good "assessment" is done for students. 
  4. Standardized tests, benchmarks, and diagnostic tests are not bad assessments unless we use them in ways for which they were not designed.  When we start using data from a benchmark or diagnostic tests to determine a student's placement in basic or advanced math classes or data from student standardized test scores to judge teacher efficacy and school quality we fail our students.  Arguments that my car got great gas mileage because it goes from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds or that my brother is a great basketball player because he has can punt a football 60 yards would be dismissed as absurd because those aren't valid metrics to use to judge such things.  Why aren't the conclusions we are erroneously drawing from bad metrics in education being dismissed as absurd?  I believe, as Joe Bower put it so well, we can't measure what's important, so we are putting importance on what we can measure.  It needs to stop for the sake of our children.  They deserve better.
  5. We need to do a serious cost/benefit analysis of how we assess students.  The assessments that are given the most importance in schools right now are also the most costly in terms of time and money that have ever been given in schools before.  We spend billions of dollars as a country each year on the tests themselves, test prep materials, and resources to meet the logistics of administering the tests.  We spend weeks of time that could be spent on learning critical thinking and innovation demanding that kids learn test taking skills and low-level thinking facts so that they can pass the tests.  And what do we get?  Lousy data.  Data that is far, far inferior to the formative assessment data I could have collected in much less time and that could have been used immediately to teach students. 
Some will say, "but scores have gone up since we started testing kids, so there must be some benefit to all this testing."  While scores on state tests have gone up, this argument is totally false.  We, the public are being manipulated.  Politicians have made the tests easier over the years to show how wonderful they (the politicians) are at "improving education."  Anyone who has compared state tests from 7 or 8 years ago to current tests can see this easily.  Our students score almost exactly the same on international tests as they did before we implemented high-stakes testing.  We've spent trillions of dollars and countless hours of time that could have been spent on real learning for nothing.  Actually, it hasn't been for nothing.  We've spent it to make politicians look good and to help their buddies who own stock in companies that produce testing materials make a buck.  We could have gotten so much more for so much less.  Maybe it's time to let educators determine how to educate our kids.