High stakes testing should not be used to make significant decisions about student performance (achievement in a course, passing a course, being promoted, graduating) and should be banned. In this post we explore formative assessment methods, and show how teachers to make decisions and judgments about student achievement should use a combination of formative and summative assessments.
Some would argue that we don’t have the science right to make such a decision. If you were to interview staff at Achieve, Inc. or the Fordham Foundation, they would strenuously argue against this decision, and claim that we really don’t the data to make this decision that would ban high-stakes testing. The truth is, we have the data to make the decision that we should Not use high-stakes tests to make important educational decisions. As Nichols and Berliner point out in their research Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools:
For very respected researchers (Nichols, Glass and Berliner) to say there is no need for research on high-stakes testing is an enigma, or a puzzlement for not only educators, but politicians and corporate leaders advancing the use of high-stakes tests as a way of finding out if students measure up to the standards they insist all students should be held accountable. For some of them, it is mind-boggling that anyone would suggest that high-stakes testing be banned.
Classroom assessment of learning involves analyzing multiple forms of evidence for making judgments about student learning, and the effectiveness of teaching. No single criteria (such as a test) can be used to make judgments about what or to what extent students have learned science. How can we possibly use bubble high-stakes tests to assess students’ ability to ask questions, design an experiment, collect data, and interpret the results? How can we possibly assess all of the standards that the National Research Council will recommend that students achieve in a science course with a 40 – 50 item multiple-choice test given on one day in the spring of the year? It’s nonsense, and unreasonable.
Question: So what are we to do?
Answer: Assessment for learning, not Assessment of learning
In their book, Nichols and Berliner point out that it is a legitimate request for citizens and school boards to know how students, teachers, and their schools are doing. It is not a legitimate request to base this on a high-stakes test for at least two reasons: first, the research evidence does not support the claim that the pressure of high-stakes tests will increase student learning; and secondly, it is a violation of professional standards (according to the American Education Research Association) to make decisions that effect students life chances or educational opportunities on the basis of test scores alone.
Their recommendation is that we shift away from assessment of learning to assessment for learning. It is the kind of paradigm shift that I have written about on this blog that will help us solve the high-stakes conundrum.
Assessment of Learning
Assessment of learning is also known as summative assessment. Summative assessments tend to be one-dimensional. The assessments are apart from the curriculum, yet uncannily drives teaching (teaching for the test, or removing interesting, hands-on activities so as to devote more time to teaching to the test). Tests that are assessments of learning are context independent, and are inflexible. All we have to do is think about the annual administration of high-stakes tests which will be used to punish or reward students and teachers—tests that were written by staff at some corporation that have not a clue about the curriculum for which they write.
Assessment for Learning
Assessment for learning is formative assessment. Formative assessments are everyday methods that teachers use to help students improve their learning and understanding of science, and to inform and improve their teaching. Formative assessment methods have been studied by many researchers, and one study, funded by the National Science Foundation found that teachers who use formative methods take the steps to identify the gap between a student’s current work and the desired aim, and then together figure out how the gap can be bridged. Formative assessment is multidimensional, and unlike high-stakes testing, is integrated into the curriculum. The assessments are authentic–that is to say, teachers use a variety of real activities to assess student progress–laboratory activities, writing essays, participating in a debate, classroom questions, and indeed simply observing and interacting with students.
Formative assessments, unlike high-stakes testing, are embedded into instruction. These assessments are part of the “regular” science curriculum. Formative assessments are flexible, and take into account the diverse nature of helping students learn science.
One of the leading researchers in the world on assessment is Professor Paul Black, King’s College, London. In a presentation by Dylan Wiliam, Black says this about formative assessment:
Assessment for learning is any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting pupils’ learning.
Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet learning needs.
Although banning high-stakes testing needs to done, assessment for learning is not a simplistic idea, but one that requires a multidimensional approach to assessment in the service of student learning. Here are formative methods used by science teachers, and described in The Art of Teaching Science:
Do We Throw Out Summative Assessments?
No. We adopt the philosophy of a multidimensional approach, and use a number of summative assessment methods that teachers use to make judgments about student learning and progress. No one form of summative assessment is enough to determine the extent or nature of student learning.
End-of-course tests can still be used, and indeed it might be more valid if these tests were developed by teachers the district, across school lines. For example, a team of teachers using the biology standards that the district agreed upon could develop a biology test for introductory biology. The image below lists a collection of methods that could be used:
- The Formative Purpose: Assessment Must First Promote Learning, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7984.2004.tb00047.x
- Collateral Damage, Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner, Harvard University Press, 2006
- The Art of Teaching Science, Jack Hassard and Michael Dias, Routledge Press, 2009.