Assessment School Reform

Assessment: Is profit influencing practice?



How should we measure success in school?
How should we measure success in school?

A recent Spotlight Series from Education Week entitled, On Using Assessment to Measure Student Learning and Growth, was devoted to addressing some lingering questions regarding classroom assessment practices.  After reading the edition, I thought it might be helpful to share my reflections on a variety of these pieces.  The Center for Teaching blog has addressed assessment practices over the past number of years (click here for an index of 21 blog posts related to assessment).

The first article, Researchers See Video Games as Testing, Learning Tools, was written by Benjamin Herold.  A summary of his major points follows:

  • Tests of the future will look like video games.
  • Playing a video game can itself constitute clear evidence of learning.
  • Researchers believe that video games can be used to measure non-cognitive skills, which are malleable will into adolescence.
  • Video games are engaging and involve the learner in complex problem solving.
  • With video games you can track a person’s progress, how he or she solved a problem, and how long he or she spent solving it.
  • We can now use digital to assess people in multiple contexts, measure their growth across time, and track different trajectories to mastery.
  • Video games could potentially be used to develop students’ cognitive and non-cognitive abilities.
  • Should debate whether it is appropriate to measure certain things in kids, who should be doing the measuring, and how those skills should count in determining students’ success.

Video games can be one tool in the arsenal of tools that schools use to engage students and assess whether they are mastering the learning goals.  However, it seems very unlikely that video games will take the place of student-to-teacher or student-to-student interaction in assessment arena.  The human interaction, especially as students struggle with complex ideas and are assessed on their mastery, has the potential to build a lifelong memory and bond. How many times have you heard stories from struggling students who come back to their schools to renew relationships with teachers who persevered with them through challenging times? Usually these experiences center on assessments of learning.

The second article, Ed Testing Industry Sees Rising Demand, was written by Sean Cavanagh.  In the article the author looks at changes taking place in the testing industry as the Common Core cam online.  The major takeaways are:

  • Increasing demand as a result of national testing programs associated with Common Core.
  • Increasing demand associated with teachers need more timely and precise feedback on student learning.
  • Changes in the testing industry usually run parallel to major policy initiatives at the state or federal level.
  • To sell their products many testing companies are “over selling” their products’ alignment to the Common Core…buyer beware.
  • The K-12 testing industry is a 4.0-4.5 billion dollar business.
  • Testing companies are chasing the formative assessment and interim assessment initiatives going on in schools, “which allow teachers to measure student learning on the fly.”
  • As national assessments aligned to Common Core come online in 2014-2015, testing companies will see a decline in revenue associated with summative assessments because states will no longer need their own assessment.
  • The market isn’t booming but it is changing
  • Schools want high-quality tests and short ones
  • Teacher evaluations tied to student achievement is putting pressure on testing companies to put in place formative and interim assessment tools that give information to the school and teacher before the summative assessment.
  • Vendors are scrambling for a tight market and making claims that their products will boost students’ scores on the Common Core assessments. A quick and easy solution without evidence is “buyers beware.”

This article is quite disturbing in some respects.  The 4.5 billion dollar industry is compromising the education system’s autonomy to make good decisions based on what is best for students.  The politics at the state and federal level, as well as the profit motive embedded in the testing industry’s mindset, is likely to cloud the important issues and responsibilities of classroom educators.  Teachers are usually the best judges of whether his or her students are mastering learning targets.  Teachers’ assessments, both formative and summative, are generally the better barometer for whether students are learning.  The article clearly indicates that policy makers and testing companies are clueless about what formative assessment really means.  It doesn’t mean graded assessments. Formative assessments are carefully designed to give students clarity as to where they are relative to mastery, and provide the teacher with a GPS regarding his or her teaching.  They are context dependent.  They are not assessments you pull out of a drawer, designed by a company, and graded by the teacher.

The third article, Busting Up Misconceptions About Formative Assessment, was written by Catherine Gewertz. It came after the article by Cavanagh and provided greater insight into the formative assessment debate.  These are some of the significant items addressed in the article:

  • Think of formative assessment not as a test but as good teaching practice.
  • Testing companies and testing initiatives like Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium are studying how to get into the formative assessment business.
  • Formative assessment is not like giving more mini-tests, it is an integral part of the instruction
  • An important goal of good formative assessment is to teach students how to self-assess, self-monitor, and self-regulate.
  • In formative assessment you want to give clear, concise, actionable feedback that students can use to improve their understanding.
  • Parents don’t understand the value of good formative assessment. They only know the summative assessment process that leads to grades.
  • Testing companies and initiatives view formative assessment as just one more test, one more place to make a profit.

It will be a dark day in education if testing companies try to muscle their way into the formative assessment domain of teaching.  They will destroy the concept.  Formative assessments should be designed by the teacher in alignment with the learning goals and instruction.  Many formative assessment ideas come from the mind of a creative teacher who knows his or her students learning profiles and understands the learning journey they are on.  As I indicated before, most formative assessment is context-driven.  What is happening in the classroom with learners today?  Answering that question, pulling field-tested strategies out from their toolbox, and responding to students’ needs represents good formative assessment.  Testing companies cannot do this effectively because they aren’t in the classroom.  As educators, we need to be sure to keep the integrity of formative assessment in place, using it as a creative tool to guide student learning and our teaching.  Bubble sheets, multiple-choice assessments, worksheets and other testing company devices will only undermine the intent of formative assessment.

In Learning from a Test, the fourth article in the series, Jack Dale, a former superintendent in Fairfax County tries to justify his new role as a consultant for America Achieves, the organization promoting and selling OECD Test for Schools program.  Just one more educator promoting an organization’s product instead of learning why schools are failing in critical areas.  He tries to rationalize why this assessment, a pre-assessment to the PISA, is good for students to take.  One more 3-hour test that most of them will find irrelevant.  Dale reflects on the challenges schools face:

  • inadequate graduation rates
  • high remediation rates in college
  • too many students who do not complete high school on time

He wants to solve these and other problems by having schools take the Test for Schools assessment which he claims gives them actionable data to help students.  The truth is that there isn’t a school in the United States, led by a team of well-informed educators, that doesn’t understand the root causes for these problems.

  • School curricula that generally are antiquated or have changed very little in dozens of years
  • School curricula that does not engage the learner (nearly 45% of students surveyed say they find school boring, Pearson Foundation Report, My Voice 2012)
  • Under-resourced families in the United States that leave so many students unprepared for school.
  • 25% of kids live in poverty
  • 4 out of 10 children are not enrolled in pre-school and then enter school not ready to learn
  • 60% of students are below proficient in reading and math because our curriculum is not inspiring them to learn these subjects

Clearly, the list goes on.  This list of issues is not going to be solved by schools taking the Test for Schools that Dale recommends.  In my mind, that’s an uninformed recommendation.  He claims data from Fairfax County validates the tests use; however, he fails to point out that Fairfax County is unique in that it contains mostly economically advantaged families who probably don’t struggle with the problems outlined above.  I think Dale is right that students need “rigorous content, a supportive learning environment, and equitable distribution of resources for enhanced learning opportunities, and ability to apply content in new situations.” (Page 7)  I would add some that he left out.  They need an inspiring and capable teacher and interesting content, not just rigorous.  Finally, the equitable distribution of resources requires that we totally rethink the funding formula for schools.  All of this is not going to change as a result of a school giving students one more assessment.  PISA results will increase in the United States if we are courageous enough to tackle all the problems listed above and build schools that serve students and teachers, not state and federal mandates.

I would highly recommend reading the Spotlight series of articles and seeing what you learn about assessment from them.  While I learned a great deal, I also realized that we are a long way from understanding how to change our assessment mindset in US schools.



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