I think about assessment culture in school all the time. It’s a topic I have written about before and remain stymied by how stuck we seem to be. I would offer that one reason why innovation in teaching and learning is so hard in schools, public or private, is that our views on assessment are antiquated, yet they remain the primary driver for how we think about curriculum design.
Because educational policy makers remain fixated on test scores as a measure of whether a school or a student is “doing well,” the general public is mesmerized into thinking our testing culture is a necessary component of good schooling. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that assessments relying on high-quality feedback are important, but that’s different from believing test scores are a useful measure of excellence.
I want to add that by test scores I mean end-of-year, high-stakes tests in public schools, AP tests aligned to national, predetermined curricula, paper and pencil tests at the conclusion of a unit of study, SAT or ACT entrance tests for college, and any other test designed to rank order students or determine whether they have mastered content. Summative assessments of this nature have a place in our schools, but we have become overly reliant on them as our proxy for excellence.
Are test scores good proxies for whether a school is doing well? How well a student does on a test or a school performs collectively is generally representative of how well a student or school will do on other tests? Test performance is a good proxy for other test performance. However, a student’s test performance is not indicative of how well he or she will manage a project, complete a complex, hands-on task, negotiate a difficult relationship, solve a gnarly interdisciplinary problem or complete almost any other task required of them in work or life. If we want to design assessments that will be effective proxies for future performance or have predictive value beyond school, we need to design assessments that align with what’s required of a person once they leave school.
Maybe this goes back to the question of school’s purpose. If we give tests and grades to predict whether a sixth grade math student will pass seventh grade math, then I guess we are on the right track. However, if we want to design valid assessments to predict whether that same sixth grader will function well in seventh grade, do well in high school, have a productive post-secondary experience, be successful at work, and lead a fulfilling life, then test scores are not valid proxies. They are one of many variables involved in predicting success. We need a new way of thinking about assessment.
I want to be clear, I am not arguing for the complete abandonment of test scores as one part of a complex puzzle. I am arguing for a new way of thinking that starts with the end in mind. What do we want students to know, understand and be able to do, especially as it relates to being highly competent in the work world?
In 2016, the World Economic Forum presented their top 10 capacities required in the fourth industrial revolution. Here is their list.
How do the plethora of tests we give students give them and us feedback on how well they think about complex problems, exercise creativity in the face of a challenge, manage people, coordinate with others, use good judgment, serve others, negotiate, or demonstrate cognitive flexibility? Do we build these assessments with the understanding that these capacities are valuable to master in school? I believe the answer to these questions is we don’t know or we don’t try. Maybe the other question is do we want to align a school’s purpose with these top 10 skills?
Eliot Eisner wrote an interesting Phi Delta Kappan article in January 2001 entitled, What Does It Mean to Say a School is Doing Well? In the article he writes:
We need a fresh and humane vision of what schools might become because what our schools become has everything to do with what our children and our culture will become.
His words of wisdom from 18 years ago still resonate today. What does a fresh and humane vision for effective assessment in schools look like? I would suggest that it means identifying what we need our future members of society to be able to know, understand and do and then work backwards as we design our assessment model. In addition to the World Economic Forum, many educators, organizations, and corporations have put forth ideas for capacities they require. If we do refresh our thinking regarding measuing excellence in schools, it will look very different from what it looks like today.