Testing to the Core

A quick look at two issues with standardized testing and accountability systems: Aligning the Assessments & Who is Responsible?

With the dawn of No Child Left Behind, a new wave of testing entered the realm of education. The new movement forced states to create assessments that were designed to keep schools and teachers accountable. It also brought the achievement gaps to the forefront of the national consciousness when discussing education. Teachers had to focus on “improving education for all” in a way that allowed for greater assessment and measurement. With the next presidential administration, Race to the Top moved assessments to the next level. Created to improve conditions for innovation and reform within education, assessment redesign became a key piece of the puzzle as states applied for additional national funding.

Now, teachers are left with some confusing and conflicting issues when it comes to assessments. Two issues highlight the problems with how teachers are kept accountable for the learning in their classrooms. The first concern pertains to the alignment of skills-based standards with the current method of assessments.

Alignment of Standards & Assessments

The rise of Common Core has created a shift in focus from specific course content to 21st century skill based learning. Within my discipline of social studies, this shift has been more dramatic than in other subjects. While maintaining a focus on history, students are expected to learn and implement the writing process in ways that primarily sat in English classrooms down the hall. Other changes are coming with the C3 Framework (College, Career, and Civic Life). Students will be asked to develop questions, practice proper research techniques, use critical thinking, and generate action plans that will impact the community around them. This is very different from the era before; rote memorization of dates will disappear in favor of curricula of action and skills that apply to areas outside of social studies. As the teaching methods move in this direction, the classwork will change from worksheets and chapter review questions into action tasks and research design. The recent uprising of Project Based Learning (PBL) will become the most effective way of meeting the new standards as they arrive.

Lost in the shuffle are the tests that students will take to determine what they have learned and what standards they have mastered. In order to mass manage the accountability systems, states have signed on with a variety of testing companies or organizations to create a new set of standardized assessments.

If the primary method of assessing students throughout the year is on the effective use of their skills on projects, they may exceed the level of learning required to master the standards of the class, but perform poorly on the accountability multiple choice assessment.

Critical thinking and analysis skills are best assessed through projects, but that can lead to difficult grading systems for states to complete at a mass production level. A new system will need to be created that addresses these issues before true accountability can take place. Organizations such as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) have collaborated with teachers across multiple states to create better assessments but the issue of multiple choice versus project based learning, and assessment types in-between still remains.

Who is responsible?

The second major issue revolves around who should be held accountable with state assessments. The schools are held to a high level of accountability from the state and district perspective. However, as the microscope moves closer and closer to the site of testing, it becomes clear that two primary groups bear the weight of responsibility: students and teachers. As a teacher, I realize that some bias plays into this analysis; what teacher wants to feel the weight of total responsibility for the student’s learning? Yet, it is a legitimate concern for teachers, especially young teachers with little job security. In many schools, test scores are the primary indicator of teaching success. However, in those same schools here in Kentucky, the students are left without much consequence, positive or negative, from the test results. An example of this includes Kentucky End of Course exams, where high school students are given a final exam score of 64% even if the student misses every single question. This divide also appears to be very wide and in need of replacing. What should positive or negative consequences be? One could only speculate, but the need to hold students to a standard and keep them legitimately accountable for their learning will provide more incentive for effort in the classroom.

The goal for assessments should be to help gauge student learning and improve teaching practice. Teachers need to step up and assist in addressing these issues as they see them in their own community and their own classrooms. I encourage you to meet these challenges head on, and give genuine thought to the problems that the current assessment systems possess.

Photo: Renato Ganoza, Taking a Test.

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  • RodPowell

    Brison – Great post here.

    Brison – Great post here.

    As I start thinking about my HS Social Studies classroom this upcoming fall, two familiar questions keep popping up – What should my students learn and how do I facilitate their learnng?

    The first one might seem to those outside of the classroom eay to answer:  they need to know important people, places, things – you know….so they can be Jeopardy stars and recall facts at the snap of their fingers.  I think this view is what most people have of the history classroom.  And….this is really easy to test and has become the focus for many of our Social Studies classrooms.  

    But to me, since you can look all of that stuff up on your mobile in 10 seconds, what’s more important is what you can do with the stuff that you know.  How well can you make connections?  How well can you communicate? How well can you find out ” “stuff” on your own.  These skills make a social studies classroom come alive.  They challenge me and my students.  But – how can you test them?  Will the PARCC tests be able to do so accurately?


    Sighh…Content vs. skills.  Both are important.  But where is the balance point?


    My hope would be that good good work we do everyday in our classroom promoting deeper learning would make a standardized MC test an afterthought for our students.


    • brisonharvey

      Balance Point

      I really appreciate your thoughts, Rod. I totally feel your struggle (as my kids would say, “The struggle is real.”). How does quizzing them on dates and names help them as they grow into adults in different professions? Myself, I try to include the information within the idea of teaching context and cause/effect. By including names and the specifics that multiple choices want, it helps them prepare for the test without thinking about it. Unfortunately, the test does remain in my head. Working on trying to get those thoughts out… Thanks for reading!  

    • CarlDraeger

      Balance point 2.0

      I assure you that these issues are not restricted to the Social Sciences.  The clarion call I’ve been hearing is “how can your students use what they’ve learned in novel situations?”.  We have had similar challenges in the mathematics classroom.  Instead of getting an ‘A” for being able to correctly follow my procedure to solve 19 of 20 linear equations, student have to be able to discuss, advocate for a specific method, and create their own solutions to non-standard problems.  We are pushing upwards on Bloom’s Taxonomy.  A wise person once said that the teacher is no longer the smartest person in a classroom with an internet connection.  Regarding the balance point, I think you nailed when you said that the “good work we do everyday in our classroom promoting deeper learning would make a standardized MC test an afterthought for our students.”  We are already doing so many things well, it is more of a ‘tweak’ than a ‘reengineering’.

  • WendiPillars

    Great post and questions

    Brison and Rod–you both bring up such seemingly unanswerable questions in light of the misalignment between desired “21st century skills” and what is tested. 

    I look at my son when I try to answer these things, and it mystifies me that policy makers can’t bring their rhetoric up to a level that honors the human element in learning–and what they know would be best for their own children. I would so much rather my son be able to ask great questions, spurred by his own exploration of information and driven by curiosity instilled by wonderful, passionate teachers like you. 

    I think it’s fair to say that good teachers demand accountability for themselves as well as their students, and it’s anathema to think otherwise. I believe there is no way a multiple choice assessment can capture the learning of any student, but that, yes, there is value in memorizing foundational knowledge–to a degree. There is an extreme need for students to learn how to connect and communicate–moreso than ever with social media, global connectivity, and the plethora of information. Finding the balance is crucial–but how to create a test in a timely and cost-appropriate manner– without intense (and intensely subjective) grading requirements is tough. 


     PARCC would be a far better assessment if it were revamped and based on student PAssion, Rampant Curiosity, and  Communication skills. I’d say to amplify what works in your own classroom, lean heavily toward the questioning/ producing/ writing portion of learning, and start to spread the wealth. 


  • bradclark

    Love the discussion

    Great piece, great conversation. 

    Wendi, you bring up a valid conundrum facing educators:  how do we balance accountability with authenticity?  

    I hope that the new research coming out of Stanford in regards to Performance Assessment will help to localize assessment design while holding students to a national standard for comparative purposes. 

    I am thankful for this conversation around assessment design, implementation and purpose. This is the natural progression of Common Core implementation in my mind. It is time that we reevaluate the nature of assessment. 

    For anyone interested, SCALE, out of Stanford, is providing a MOOC on performance assessment design starting in September:



  • KipHottman

    Will Higher Ed follow?


    Great post brother!  Long story short, I teach Spanish and most of my assessments are performance based.  We measure two skills (writing and speaking) with authentic tasks and grade our students using a performance based rubric (created from the American Council of Teaching Foreign Language ACTFL).   Love it!!! Kids love it!!! So much better than the fill in the blank conjugation and sentence translation of the 90s.

    I recently had multiple students take the Spanish entrance exam to various Universities and unfortunately none were skill based.  All entrance exams were multiple choice “show me how much grammar you know” type assessments.  My kids were not given the opportunity to actually “show what they could do with the language” and I was truly saddened by the outcome.  Many were placed inappropriately in their college Spanish class.

    Another teacher and I were discussing this issue and she was wondering if we were doing the students who were going to attend higher ed an injustice.  Are we doing an injustice if Universities aren’t acknowleding the importance of performance based assessments?  I don’t think so, and I can’t go back to the way I taught when I first started teaching where the classroom focus seemed to be on what students couldn’t do.  I love that we have changed our philosophy and the focus is now on what students can do!   Performance based conversation is something that truly needs to be discussed amongst educators and it is refreshing to know that these conversations are now taking place.

    • CarlDraeger

      I agree with Renee and Brad.

      Brad Clark makes a good point regarding (Stanford) SCALE’s MOOC on designing performance assessments. The push for authentic assessments is a universal concern.  Some colleges/universities still lag in practicing what they preach. As Renee said, this is actually a call to collaborate vertically.  There is a teacher in my department whose job description includes (amongst many other things) managing Interconnect.  Interconnect is a consortium of educational colleges within the universities which send us their pre-service teachers for student teaching assignments.  We meet 3 times a year to communicate changes at the university level (e.g. edTPA) and at the district level (e.g. new State laws).  We mix our groups to include public school teachers, public school administrators, university coordinators, and university professors.  The conversations revolve around pre-service teachers.  However, a similar gathering could address appropriate placement tests and vertical curriculum alignment in a variety of content areas. You could be the one to champion this cause as it is an issue that fires you up.  Go for it.

  • ReneeMoore

    We hope so!


    The discussions about and attention to performance based assessments are slowly making their way into higher education. Some disciplines have always been more receptive to PBAs than others. That is shifting due mainly (and sadly) to pressure from the regional accreditation agencies, but also faculty members are increasingly seeing the value of PBAs. However, fewer colleges are much slower about applying PBAs to admission and placement decisions; most of these are still done using standard entrance exams. This is an area where teachers at the secondary and post-secondary levels really need to join forces and voices to push for change.

  • Rachel Losch

    Communication is Key

    Recently, on a trip with several college professors, we discussed the 21st Century Skills and college and career readiness.  The professors were not very familiar with the 21C Skills or college and career readiness.  I wondered about how well the college of education professor might know these new terms and standards.  I believe the professors were unaware of the eduspeak terms because the majority were not education professors.  However, one in the education department and knew about the topics, plus A TON about standards based grading, especially for exceptional students.  Dr. Lee Ann Jung from the University of Kentucky is for mastery learning of the standards.

    On another note,  the idea of Project Based Learning is trickling down to the elementary level, and people find it very difficult to change their old ways of multiple choice testing. A couple of thoughts…

    • Should college professors and secondary teachers join forces so that the performance based assessments may be used to represent the student’s best?
    • How can the process of PBL and performance based assessments oooze into the post secondary realm?  
    • What if the schools were measured by innovative projects that the students had creatively designed?
    • School Administrators must be able to gage the success of their students by looking at multiple measures INCLUDING performance based assessments, standards based assessments, PBL inventiveness, etc…How can they do this in a timely fashion?



    • brisonharvey

      Measure of Innovation

      I totally am feeling those thoughts there at the end of your comment. I truly believe in creating a connection between performance based assessment and its value to post-secondary education. If colleges value the growth potential for a student and the motivation to succeed, projects would serve a great purpose. As for how the school is graded, I think a “measure of innovation” should be included on a school’s report card. If a school isn’t trying new things to improve, then who would want to send their child there? I believe that a learning environment must be living and breathing, which will include some growing too.

      • CarlDraeger

        Grading of schools…

        Agreed.  We do so much more for our students beyond what is represented by standardized test scores.  At the elementary level, where is the ‘hug’ measure? At the secondary level, how do we measure the ‘acceptance’ of the individual.  How do you put a measure on the intangables?  Well said, Brison.

    • CarlDraeger

      Great questions, Rachel!

      I find it ironic that Dr. Lee Ann Jung and Dr. Thomas Guskey spoke last Thursday at one our high schools to address all secondary teachers regarding Standards Based Grading.  Anyway, you closed with such fine conversation starters.

      Should college professors and secondary teachers join forces so that the performance based assessments may be used to represent the student’s best?

      I would argue that these collaborations are already occurring.  Our local community college initiated and funded a group of professors and high and middle school teachers.  Their work has resulted in the design of a senior math class that is in place at several public school districts in their community college district.  Everyone agrees that there is more work to be done.  As the college President and several Trustees participate regularly, it appears to remain in operation.


      How can the process of PBL and performance based assessments ooze into the post-secondary realm?

      If we consider the curriculum through the lens of Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design, you need to start with the essential questions of what you want your students to learn and to be able to do with what they learned.  Assessments follow afterwards.  Once you have a clear picture of what minimum standards you would like all students to achieve, you design your assessments to verify such mastery.  This is where Standards Based Grading makes the most sense.  Next order of business is to design and execute lessons that attend to the differentiated needs of the students in our room. If the standards are clear and the assessments align to them, there will be a lot of ‘oozing’.

      What if the schools were measured by innovative projects that the students had creatively designed?

      I would call that Utopia.  Danielson would call that ‘Distinguished’ practice.

      School Administrators must be able to gage the success of their students by looking at multiple measures INCLUDING performance based assessments; standards based assessments, PBL inventiveness, etc…How can they do this in a timely fashion?

      While the summative measure of student learning is critical to considering the success of a school or program, the measure of student growth is a more important measure of teacher and program effectiveness.  Even if several students are performing below the standards, it is important to measure their gains. Also, we forget that the most accurate instrument to measure student performance is the teacher.  If a teacher can use the standards as the measuring stick, the administrator need only collect the data points from their teachers.  This can certainly be done, especially if the data collection occurs at the end of regular grading periods.  Again, growth is more important than the sumative measure.