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Changing the Face of Testing

September 10, 2010

Since the introduction of No Child Left Behind, much has been written about the shortcomings of high stakes multiple-choice standardized testing.  Despite the argument by some that these tests alone are an adequate measure of student and teacher success, there is agreement among many stakeholders that such one-size-fits-all exams are flawed.  The limitations of these exams include ambiguously worded questions and the failure to test higher order thinking skills or even some basic concepts that students need to prepare for adulthood and meaningful participation in our democratic society.  The exams tend to focus on superficial thinking and ignore non-instructional factors that often explain differences in test scores.  There is also the obvious concern that student growth and learning cannot be effectively gauged with a single exam.

So, it is with reserved optimism that I applaud the commitment  made by the Department of Education to invest $330 million for a redesign of standardized exams.  As reported last week, two groups of states will receive funds to work with hundreds of university professors and testing experts to reinvent the assessment process.  The two groups, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (of which California is participating) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium represent forty-four states and will work in a “friendly competition” to produce tests by the 2014-2015 school year.

The literature provided thus far by the Department of Education and the two organizations includes a focus on creating tests that:

  • Assess the common core standards in math and English;
  • Measure higher order thinking skills that are not assessed by current multiple choice exams;
  • Require students to read complex text, synthesize information, and complete authentic tasks;
  • Present  a problem to analyze that requires students to sift through a portfolio of information and tools before writing analytically about how they would use the information and tools to solve the problem;
  • Rely greatly on technology and are administered mostly on computers; and
  • Are administered several times a year to provide teachers with quicker feedback about concepts that students have not yet learned, which allows teachers to change class instruction during the year and adapt to the needs of students.

Investing money in assessments that measure meaningful skills necessary for college and career bound students is a step in the right direction.  In addition, providing feedback throughout the year, rather than in a final end-of-the-year exam, can provide timely and valuable information to teachers, schools, and parents about a student’s strengths and weaknesses.

However, there are pieces that are still missing in the process.  Where is the voice of the classroom teacher, the “education expert” who is on the front line every day?  Where is the input from those who see, day to day, the achievement gap between certain groups of students?  Looking at the plans for both assessment groups, as well as the information disseminated by the Department of Education, there seems to be little room for input from actual K-12 teachers.  In addition, the exams will only focus on math and English standards, rather than creating assessments that look at a wide variety of important content and skill areas such as the sciences, social studies, and the arts.  Math skills and English literacy are critical elements in the education of America’s youth, but are they the only measures of what we must expect from our next generation of civic participants?  As a U.S. History and Government teacher, I am obviously a bit biased, but I firmly believe that a good foundation in history and civics will produce just as many, and probably more, future voters and civic leaders as a good score in math.

As I mentioned in an earlier post this year, we must create methods to assess literacy and numeracy without eliminating civic education, creativity, and the arts.  We must develop models to gauge growth in learning that are based on high expectations for all students, but also take into consideration the gap in academic readiness between a student living in poverty and one living in a more privileged community.  In addition, we must bring together standardized test data with qualitative data that can only be gathered by those who are in classrooms working with students.  With $330 million in public funds available to overhaul the assessment process, it is important we get it right.

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