The Problem Isn’t Assessment; It’s The High Stakes

Hello John,

Recently, I had a brief discussion with a new high ranking official about assessment. He told his followers that teachers seem to have the idea of assessment all wrong. He gets that we need to address “teaching to the test,” but that teaching to the test isn’t the problem. According to the test, we should look at assessment for “what it is”:¬† a tool to find out how teachers can improve their teaching and increase achievement.

I giggled to myself, and I rarely do so.

It’s not that I disagreed with him per se. While the argument he made was generic enough that everyone could agree, I felt the general tenor of his argument made it seem like teachers aren’t “in” on what he’s talking about. His argument hinges on the idea that the resistance to the current political climate stems from teachers not wanting to assess children. It’s a weird argument since I don’t know of a teacher who doesn’t want to find out what their students can do and already know, whether the assessment is teacher-made or otherwise.

Let me be fair, too, because we have plenty of arguments to make about the way we assess children. For one, we don’t always know whether we’re assessing for what the child taught or what the teacher learned. We don’t always get the training for the best assessment methods for any given situation and how to align our assessment to standards or any other criteria. We often have to learn how to create tests and quizzes on the fly, depending on our teaching styles and how the rest of the school views assessment. Many of our schools may become too dependent on assessment via publisher to guide them on how to approach questioning. Some of these arguments have validity in different circles.

But he wasn’t making that argument. His argument assumed teachers (specifically, teachers who strongly voice their concerns about testing) must not understand the purpose of assessment at all.

Of course, after asking a clarifying question, I immediately said, “The problem isn’t assessment. The problem is with the high-stakes part of it. Everyone assesses, formally or otherwise. The difference is in the consequence and material more than the learning.” Of course, others chimed in, but he couldn’t rebut my argument sufficiently enough for me to say he even understood his own argument.

For, educators as a whole want desperately to find out what students learned, how they can better teach their material so kids get it, AND do it in a way that allows them to make sure they can follow it up with the student, regardless of whether they did well on the exam or not. We also want to make sure these exams don’t become a referendum on whether we can teach, especially since study after thorough study shows how inappropriate it is for teachers to use such exams to do anything besides find out what kids know about the questions given right in front of them. on that particular day and that particular year, it seems.

As our high stakes assessments come up starting next week in NYC, we can only hope our students do well, but if they don’t, I’d prefer that these exams not be an indictment or prediction of how good a teacher I am, or the value of the student taking the test for that matter. We ought to use these assessment to take a pulse, not to check the child’s health.

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