Tracking skills in isolation: Missing the forest for the trees

Today one of my tasks was to create an assessment calendar for the year. This is a plan for mandatory benchmark and interim assessments to track my students’ abilities to perform on distinct sections of the NY State ELA exam throughout the year. There are three major sections of the test, which we track separately through interims and all together in benchmarks: (1) reading and multiple choice, (2) listening and written response, and (3) reading and written response.

I don’t really have a problem with giving any one of these assessments. After all, my school has a mandate to raise students’ profiency levels (as measured by this test), and we need to do all we can to make sure our students are able to be successful on the it. The standards being assessed are all important—supporting an answer to a question with evidence, identifying literary devices, and so forth.

My problem comes when I look at this schedule of assessments as a whole: its effect on my teaching and what it suggests to students about what matters in their learning. Between a September diagnostic benchmark, quarterly interims on each section, and a winter and spring benchmark, at least a day of class almost every month must be devoted to test practice and hours of time to creating the tests, grading them, and analyzing the data.

Since my time is not unlimited, this means that I do less grading and assessment of other types of tasks and skills. In fact, these standardized-style assessments are the only ones I’m responsible for collecting data on regularly. Of course, I can maintain my usual classroom assessment practices, just with a bit less time and encouragement to focus on them.

So… what’s wrong with that? What’s to say that standardized assessments aren’t sufficient or even superior to teacher-created authentic assessments, being somewhat more objective and performed without any help from the teacher or other students? Aren’t we getting a more accurate reading of what students have learned in a standardized assessment? That depends what we are interested in measuring.

Standardized test questions assess students’ skills out of context. This is what makes them more objective and simpler to grade. However, in life, the ability to apply skills to a specific context is extremely valuable—more so today, it turns out, than one’s ability to perform a task in isolation. Daniel Pink makes this point in his landmark book, A whole new mind, which warns that machines and cheaper labor forces overseas are taking over tasks that can be done out of context through standardized methods. The jobs that remain for Americans demand that we apply our skills through the filters of sound principles, careful judgments and decision-making, empathy, cross-cultural competence, creativity, and ever-increasing self-awareness.

It’s a complicated world out there and changing every day. “Mastering” skills in isolation is sort of like learning to sail a boat without going out on the water. I don’t have a problem with any one day on my official assessment calendar or any one skill assessed. I usually find it interesting to see how kids do and track their progress. But in privileging standardized-type assessments over authentic ones—which is happening all over the country, wherever the stakes are high for the scores—I suspect we are missing the forest for the trees. And, unfortunately, it’s the kids who will lose.

 

[Image credit: nasa.gov]

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