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My work in educational measurement over the past four decades has afforded me the opportunity to understand assessment practice from two distinct perspectives. The first was established during doctoral studies in measurement at Michigan State in the 1970s, where I learned the standards of quality assessment. I spent my early career applying those standards in the standardized testing context as director of test development at ACT.
The second perspective arose in the 1980s when I left standardized testing behind to map the task demands of day-to-day classroom assessment from the teacher’s perspective. I translated technical standards of validity, reliability, and fairness into criteria that teachers could master and apply routinely to maximize the quality of their classroom assessments. I have spent 30 years helping teachers and local school leaders become “assessment literate.”
As my work has unfolded over the decades, I have tracked how standardized testing and classroom assessment policies and practices have played out in schools. I have witnessed two domains of assessment that evolved in disconnected and fundamentally different ways, both of which leave me deeply concerned about their impact on student academic well-being.
Assessment is the process of gathering evidence of achievement to inform educational decisions. Our schooling processes rely on a variety of educational decision-makers working in a range of instructional contexts. They make critically important educational decisions that bear directly on student learning success. One can’t help but wonder if assessment policies and practices have served these decision-makers and their students well. Unfortunately, in my opinion, they have not. But, under the right conditions, they could.
Opportunity to learn
Federal policymakers have been driven for decades by the belief that the way to improve achievement is to hold schools accountable for annual test scores, reward score increases, and punish declining scores. So, each year state and local leaders are required to spend millions of state and local dollars on testing, scoring, data processing, and reporting systems.
Given the enormity of these costs, one might expect rigorous cost/benefit analyses linking testing costs to evidence of improvement. Such studies are difficult to find. But what we do know is that, over three decades, National Assessment of Educational Progress scores have remained flat.
Further, we also know that the reward- and punishment-driven annual testing is not conducted in other high- achieving nations, that annual scores are of no instructional value to teachers who make instructional decisions every three to five minutes, and that comparable evidence could be generated at a fraction of current costs using accepted sampling procedures.
Annual tests are not unimportant, but their costs far outstrip their value for promoting learning. Innovative classroom assessment practices, on the other hand, have demonstrated a strong impact on student learning. Yet, policymakers continue to invest only in accountability testing. In doing so, they reveal a fundamental lack of understanding of evolving principles of sound assessment practice.
Done well and used instructionally, day-to-day classroom assessments have demonstrated they can trigger major gains in student achievement. Teachers typically spend a quarter to a third of their available professional time engaged in assessment-related activities. In fact, 99 percent of the assessments in a student’s learning life are conducted at the behest of their teachers in classrooms. Clearly there is a place for innovation. But few teachers and almost none of their supervisors have been trained to create or use them.
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Pre-service assessment literacy training remains thin for teachers nationwide and nearly nonexistent for the administrators. And, because annual large-scale testing costs are so high, very often, there are few assessment resources left to support in-service professional development in classroom assessment literacy.
Upon reflection, I see a veneer of highly visible and very expensive large-scale testing systems being used to promote the appearance of academic rigor but contributing little to its attainment. These systems are accompanied by classroom assessment practices that may fail to meet either standards of quality or the information needs of their intended instructional decision-makers.
This bleak assessment landscape is caused by a profound and deep-seated flaw in the assessment infrastructure of American education: Those charged with setting federal, state, or local assessment policy and those charged with transforming policy into practice at state and local levels have not been given the opportunity to master the basic principles of sound assessment practice. Many are not sufficiently assessment literate to do their jobs.
The time has come to widen our vision of excellence in assessment from high-stakes accountability testing programs alone to the development of high-quality local school district assessment systems capable of meeting the information need of all engaged in the promotion of student learning success. We know what teachers and their local supervisors need to know, believe, and do to use classroom assessment effectively. We know student learning success can skyrocket if they do the right things. And, we know how to train them. All that is and has been missing for them is the opportunity to learn.
Serve assessment users
To fulfill the school mission of maximum learning for all students, we must design and build local assessment systems that serve all assessment users by providing them with dependable assessment results and by relying on classroom assessments to cause (not merely grade) students’ learning.
An analysis of the schooling process reveals the diversity of truly important instructional decisions-makers who need assessment results tailored to their unique needs. School district assessment systems must serve them all:
- Teachers and students rely on the results of day-to- day classroom assessments.
- Building principals and district instructional leaders need periodic interim or benchmark assessment results to evaluate and improve instructional program.
- Local, state, and federal policymakers need results of annual assessments to assist in making long-term program and resource allocation decisions.
Further, these users can and do rely on assessment results to accomplish a variety of things; that is, to inform instructional decisions intended to:
- Support student learning as it’s unfolding—for formative purposes.
- Informing teachers for instructional planning (formative assessment).
- Informing student/teacher teams to promote growth (assessment for learning).
- Certify levels of attainment at a point in time, for example, for report cards (summative assessment).
We build comprehensive local school district assessment systems when we design them to meet all the information needs of all users by providing each with dependable information in a timely and understandable form.
Historically, those in charge of assessment resources have been investing heavily in annual summative assessment. But it’s the other assessment users whose decisions literally drive student ongoing learning success. Most often, teachers develop these assessments, and we must be sure they meet standards of quality. But we know that teachers are not trained to do this.
This problem points to its own solution. We have translated standards of quality designed for standardized tests into nontechnical terms for teachers and local school leaders to apply routinely in classrooms. Professional development programs are available to help them learn. Assessment resources must be available to all assessment users, including students, if we are to get them the opportunity to develop their classroom assessment literacy.
New role for students
If we are to achieve truly balanced assessment, the time has come to progress beyond the traditional belief that assessment always is something teachers do to students. Over the past 20 years, an international community of researchers has established that the instructional decisions students make based on their interpretation of their own assessment results can contribute as much to their learning success as do the decisions of the adults around them.
Students estimate their chances of future success based on the levels of the success they have experienced in the past. Based on their subjective prediction, they decide such things as whether or not to try and how much energy to invest. Those students who experience success can ride the resulting confidence into new learning challenges and reach new heights. Those who experience extended losing streaks often lose confidence, accept defeat, and give up on themselves.
Understand that when students give up and lose hope, learning stops for them. From then on, the instructional decisions made by the adults around them may no longer matter. We now know that these personal emotional dynamics underpin each student’s long-term academic well-being.
Breakthrough research suggests that teachers can keep students engaged by drawing them into self-assessment processes while they are learning. Then they can be sure each student remains continuously informed about the answers to the following three driving questions:
- What does my teacher want me to learn?
- How close am I to that learning now?
- How can I close the gap between the two?
Teachers can keep students feeling in control of their success by, for example, beginning instruction by sharing student-friendly learning targets, arranging targets in progressions so students can watch themselves growing, providing students with descriptive (not judgmental) feedback showing them how to do better the next time. They can teach students to self-assess and encourage students to communicate with others about their growth. These are principles of assessment for learning that have yielded profound achievement gains.
Professional development programs are available to help teachers and their supervisors master principles of assessment for learning. Again, all they need is the opportunity to learn. Those who allocate local, state, and federal assessment resources are in the position to give them that opportunity.
Rick Stiggins (email@example.com) is the founder and retired president of the Assessment Training Institute, Portland, Oregon.