It seems that using a balanced approach to do our work as educators is an overlooked perspective these days. It’s almost as if we have been conditioned to choose an extreme to support our position on literacy, accountability, and assessment. This either/or mentality in place of a both/and approach is troubling. When we fail to honor the continuum of concepts and pedagogical methods by forcing others to choose a position, we lose the opportunity to honor the fact that all of our children come to us with different and unique needs and gifts. What they need, when they need it, and how they need it simply can’t be so stringently defined. Simply put: it depends. There are far too many factors that contribute to each child’s learning journey for us to narrowly define our approach to instructing and assessing them.
With such extreme thinking, we’ve been forced into two camps when it comes to assessment. Camp A: We give too many tests. Tests are stressing our students out a great deal and our teachers are only focused on teaching to the tests. We are constantly assessing students to try and predict how they’ll perform on the big high stakes tests, and many of our students still aren’t demonstrating college and career readiness. Camp B: We have to know how our children are comparing to others in our schools, districts, state, and across the nation. These tests help us hold the educators accountable. We can see who is getting the job done, and who isn’t. We can see where large achievement gaps exist. If we don’t tests our students, how will we know how they are doing? Both perspectives are problematic, in my opinion, and it’s because we’ve weaponized assessment.
Assessment is an essential tool for effective teaching and for learning. When used as a tool rather than a weapon, it can help educators guide their instruction, create formative learning opportunities, diagnosing student misconceptions, and serve as evidence of mastery. It can also prove to be just as useful to students, building their agency in knowing what it is they know and are able to do and identifying areas where they need more deliberate practice and support. Instead, assessment has become a weapon in the accountability arsenal, a far cry from its’ original intent and purpose I believe I’ve outlined here.
Why? Why has assessment been weaponized? Why has its’ weaponization forced us into two camps of thought, neither of which is balanced? I believe there are many reasons for this. 1. It makes accountability easy to measure. It’s a convenient way to articulate the impact of teaching on learning. 2. It’s makes comparing student performance much easier than it would be if we used an assessment approach that wasn’t so easy to quantify, such as performance assessments. 3. It’s a big business. A 2012 article from Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institute estimated that states spend about 1.7 billion annually on standardized testing, and in 2015 Chingos wrote a follow up article noting that in the grand scheme of things this was minimal, considering that our public education system spends an estimated 600 billion per year. He went on to explain how if the 1.7 billion was repurposed it would do little to improve teacher salaries, class size, supply budgets, etc. His conclusion is simply that we shouldn’t retreat from assessment. It helps inform policy makers and shapes their decisions, helps measure the performance of schools and educators, and enables scholars to take on research targeted at increasing academic outcomes. There is, however, a follow up to this, the growing evidence-based intervention products that are consuming the budgets of schools and districts in their attempt to improve student learning on these weaponized assessments. I wrote about the intervention overdose in an earlier blog. If you’re so inclined, give it a read and let me know what you think.
I can’t help but think what might happen if we invested the dollars in intervention materials in a different way, and I’m not referencing salaries here. We can professionally develop our teachers to build their assessment literacy capacity, to work with and coach them on how to use the information from the assessment to shift their practice in a way that leads to student mastery. We can help our students develop agency, and support them in being able to speak clearly to their strengths and opportunities and their plan for growing their knowledge and skills.
I believe that the ultimate job of the teacher is to be a diagnostician. They must identify and correct misconceptions in thinking and understanding early on and this is a skill that takes practice and development. Instead, we continue to invest in outputs, gathering more results to compare, rank, sort, and hold schools and educators accountable, rather than focusing on inputs-developing the capacity of teachers to be masterful diagnosticians and improving the agency of students. That’s where our efforts and investments should be in my opinion. Thus would help end the weaponization of assessment.
I want to be clear. I don’t believe assessment is a bad thing. This isn’t an all or nothing issue. We need assessment in the educational process. No doubt about it. We just need to return to a more common sense approach. One that honors the teacher as diagnostician and the student as an agent of his or her own learning.
Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!