Do we need better assessments?
Absent federal pressure (from programs such as Race to the Top and NCLB waiver applications), would there be any reason to change assessments?* That is, if we are unhappy with student performance on basic skills tests such as NAEP or ITBS, does it follow that we need better assessments, i.e. assessments that purport to “emphasize a deep knowledge of core concepts within and across disciplines, problem solving, analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking”?
It seems to me that a more reasonable response to poor performance on basic skills tests is to adopt more effective instructional practices. In any case, I’m not convinced that it is necessary or desirable to have national standardized assessments that try to assess everything that we might want children to learn.
In Republic of Noise, Diana Senechal observes:
It seems obvious that schools should help students learn to read and work thoughtfully, to develop a life of the mind. Instead, there is a growing emphasis on visible activity and productivity. What isn’t visible or tangible seems threatening, because it could be anything or nothing. How do we know that students are learning if we can’t see signs of it here and now? How do we know that the class has accomplished anything if there isn’t a product to put on the wall? (pages 41-42)
Perhaps, we might add, how do we know if students are learning if there are no standardized assessment scores on record?
Basic skills tests can give us a clue about higher-level skills. If children can’t multiply by ten without a calculator, then they don’t have deep understanding of place value. If children can’t answer questions about grammar, punctuation, or capitalization (conventions of written language) they are unlikely to otherwise be proficient writers.
Furthermore, at the risk of sounding like one of those people who walked to and from school uphill both ways, my teachers didn’t need to wait for the results of standardized exams to know whether students were learning. My teachers collected and reviewed homework, gave quizzes and unit tests, asked questions during class, and assigned other written and oral reports. Standardized assessments may be valuable for identifying gaps in the curriculum or children who may need additional instructional interventions, but they certainly aren’t the only source of information on student learning for teachers.
In addition to standardized assessment score reports, parents should be receiving information on student learning from report cards, parent-teacher conferences and other communication with the school, graded exams, home work, and papers sent home with the student, and the student’s general feelings about school.
There is no reason that all information about student learning must come from nationally standardized assessments to be of value to parents and teachers.
Arguably, standardized assessments may distort instructional practices rather than improve them. For example, see Chris at A Blog About School about writing instruction in the age of standardized writing assessments here and here. Do we think standardized scoring rubrics for oral presentations or evidence of critical thinking won’t similarly distort instruction? [Smarter Balanced Assessment ELA performance task rubrics are available here. Writing starts at p. 39 and speech at p. 62). Will “score four** voice volume” join the five paragraph essay in test prep style over substance? If we value the skills SBAC purports to assess, we might reconsider sacrificing them on the altar of standardized testing.
*Note that the Iowa Assessments are aligned to the Common Core curriculum and can provide “on track” indicators of college readiness starting in sixth grade (see here).
**Top performance task score.