Assessment’s either/or conundrum. . .

I’m enjoying the give and take of the conversation that has developed in the comment section of my recent blog post on the Danish system of assessing students because it is forcing me to think!  As always, diversity of opinion provides the kind of external challenge necessary for new learning.

While listening, I’ve noticed two distinct viewpoints developing.  The first argues that an overemphasis on standardized testing as a form of assessment leaves parents and teachers with a superficial understanding of what it is that a student knows and can do.

As Simon argues:

The point of education has to be to teach kids to do something that they couldn’t do before. That’s what learning is. Frankly, it’s uninteresting how well a bunch of 14 year-olds can cough up the periodic table or list off the members of the Triple Entente in 1914. That kind of information is easily available when you need it and listing it is proof of memorization, not learning.

What is interesting is what you can do with such information. Analysis, critical thinking, using technical terminology – these are skills, and skills that are very hard to measure in a multiple-choice quiz. They are also fairly easy to judge in a conversation. If it is unclear whether the pupil is parroting or not, just ask another question.

The second argues that teacher observations alone are not always enough to paint a complete picture of a child’s strengths and weaknesses.  Standardized tests can, therefore, be a valuable tool in the assessment arsenal, filling in gaps between a teacher’s observations and a child’s performance.

As K. Borden writes:

Please remember I come at this from the perspective of what happens when the teachers’ observations fail the student, but the tests open the doors of opportunities.

Thanks to tests (Pre-EOGs, Cog-AT, ITBS, EOGs) a different picture than the one being reported by teacher observation emerged. Those results led to seeking more answers, largely via more tests (WISC, Standford Binet, Woodcock Johnson). And those tests revealed a remarkably able and creative student, hindered by a previously unrecognized handwriting disability. In one year via tests we learned far more about one young learner than teachers’ observations ever yielded.

So bash away at those ovals and that data. Meanwhile, one child and her parents thank them.

As both K and Simon note later in the comment conversation, teacher observations and standardized tests should each play a role in a well-rounded system for assessing our students.  Both recognize that assessment should never be an either/or proposition.  Instead, we should get our hands on as much information as possible when trying to diagnose a course of action for our kids.

The problem—and correct me if I’m wrong—-is that American schools HAVE made student assessment an either/or proposition.  Teacher observations have become increasingly irrelevant as districts and states try to meet the testing targets set by the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Let me give you an example of how this shift has played out in my classroom:  Not long ago, I had a parent ask for a conference to learn more about her son’s abilities in my language arts classroom.  Having had a great relationship with her boy over the course of the year, I knew his strengths and weaknesses better than I knew the strengths and weaknesses of most of the kids who roll through my classroom, so I was looking forward to our meeting.

During our time together, I went into great detail with this mother, providing writing samples that highlighted strengths and weaknesses, reviewing classroom assessments that had caused struggle, and sharing observations about verbal ability and vocabulary based on countless interactions over the entire year.  I actually felt pretty darn good about the “assessment” that I’d made of my student.

The first words her mother said when I was finished:  “That’s all great, but what does the test say?”

With nine simple words, she’d completely dismissed my professional opinion, opting instead for the cold, hard, seemingly-more-accurate facts.  And when you look at the kind of weight we place on standardized tests as a tool for measuring everything from student performance to school quality, it seems like pushing the professional opinions of classroom teachers to the sideline has become common practice.

So I guess that’s why I’m drawn to a system of assessment that places teacher observations first, K.  While I’m all for standardized tests that are used to diagnose student strengths and weaknesses, I think we’ve moved beyond using standardized tests for diagnosis in our country.  Instead, standardized tests have become our primary tool for evaluation and accountability—-of students, of teachers and of schools.

And as Dan Koretz—author of Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us—wrote in this recent interview, using standardized tests for accountability rather than diagnosis is a narrow-minded practice:

Let’s start with test-based accountability, which is perhaps the most pressing issue today.  As both a former schoolteacher and a parent of two children who went through public schools, I am convinced that we need more effective ways to hold educators accountable, and I believe that testing has to be a part of an effective accountability program.

Doing this the way we do in many places now, however — treating one test as a comprehensive indicator of student achievement, pretending that scores taken by themselves are a trustworthy indicator of school quality, and rewarding and punishing teachers and students for scores — is just too simple.

It ignores not only what we know about testing, but also what we know from many other fields, such as healthcare, about the effects of incentive systems. We face an enormous challenge in designing better educational accountability systems, and the first step in doing that is recognizing the limitations of what has been tried to date.

Does any of this resonate with anyone?  Has the proverbial pendulum swung too far in the direction of oval filling as a form of assessment?

Will we ever get back a comfortable—and professional—middle ground where teacher observations are paired with diagnostic tests to paint a clear picture of what our students know and can do?