Part II – Standardized Testing & Assessment: Is There Another Way?
By Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell
In a series of Extra Credit articles I will explore some important contemporary issues in education. Inspiration for this series of articles comes from What are the 10 Most Critical Issues in Education Today… originally a blog post by Bernard Bull. Due to its popularity a book resulted, called What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education.
The second in this series of articles focuses on the issue of standardized testing and assessment.
What is the best way to assess that you have learned something?
Well, it depends on a whole host of factors — especially, perhaps, the thing you are assessing.
For example, is it content knowledge? Or is it a skill, like driving a car?
In our current high-stakes educational system, the most influential and consequential approach for assessing student achievement is to use standardized tests, which almost exclusively assess content knowledge only. For this article, I argue that we over-rely on content knowledge measures that depend on strong language-specific intelligence, to the exclusion of other viable approaches.
Before I present an alternative to the present approach, some thoughts on the pros and cons of standardized testing.
Advantages and disadvantages of standardized testing
To be sure, standardized testing is a controversial topic. Many people say standardized testing provides an accurate measurement of student performance and teacher effectiveness. Others say such a one-size- fits-all approach to assessing academic achievement can be inflexible or even biased.
Common arguments against standardized testing state that:
1. Educational systems have become too fixated on scores, out of context.
2. “Teaching to the test” is a wasteful and inefficient instructional approach.
3. Progress over time can be de-emphasized when educators are overly reliant on one test score.
4. The traditional testing situation does not align with many learners’ predispositions. Learning differences, anxiety, personal/family strife, physical health and language barriers can all impact a student’s test score.
5. Standardized testing has become a bit of political football and wedge issue with politicians on the pro and con sides pushing unrealistic and extreme agendas.
Common arguments for standardized testing state that:
1. Massive amounts of data can be compiled and compared.
2. It demonstrates and promotes “accountability.” In that, common standards are
established and assessed across a broad range of students, teachers, schools, districts, states and countries.
3. Standardized tests are developed and assessed objectively.
As I see it…
The above issues notwithstanding, the primary issue from my perspective as the leader of a college preparatory school for students with learning differences is that traditional high-stakes testing confines how learners represent their knowledge to what they are capable of comprehending from text or expressing in writing. Like all other human competencies, we vary greatly on these abilities … and some highly intelligent students are at significant disadvantage as a result.
To this point, a good test ought to give students an opportunity to show what they truly know.
The shame is believing that students, with equal knowledge, will perform equally well on a test that requires specific prerequisite (e.g., language) skills. It’s like any other skill … imagine if a student’s ability to hit a 3-pointer was assessed via pen and paper.
What can be done?
Ideally, we create assessment situations that are fair for all students. We need to somehow modify a system that places so much emphasis on one standardized (i.e., high stakes) testing experience. By comparison, imagine if the accumulation of your year’s work came down to a test. Would that be enough to define your knowledge?
Ideally, the aim of assessment ensures that each student attains content mastery. Rather than develop a system in which there are winners and losers, create a system in which all students can be winners.
I will admit my thinking is quite aspirational but there are some processes and approaches that all schools could use that might release us from the tyranny of the high stakes test.
First, an explicit and society-wide understanding that the academic profile of every person is unique. Our education model generally requires us to “fit the mold.” Instruction is often too uniform and the testing that follows is the same – especially, standardized high-stakes testing.
As mentioned above, a particular academic profile does very well on high stakes testing. Quite appropriately students that do well on high-stakes tests are called “smart” but more accurately they are a particular kind of smart that does well on tests that require strong language skills to be successful. A lot of research supports how people of varying areas of intelligence. For example, see Howard Gardner’s life work on Multiple Intelligences.
Second, a page might be taken from the schools that support students with learning differences.
From the beginning, schools like Currey Ingram, have utilized Individualized Education/Learning Plans (IEPs/ILPs) that, at their essence, prescribe a plan for instruction and assessment that is tailored to the specific student. I‘ve stated previously in Extra Credit articles that if one global change could made to the education system it would be to implement ILPs for all students.
Third, there’s a burgeoning movement called the The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC).
This movement has the potential to shake up the current educational system, especially as it pertains to how students are prepared for and admitted to colleges. The MTC is a …”collective of high schools organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment. This model calls for students to demonstrate a mastery of skills, knowledge and
habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard of mastery.”
Unlike traditional educational models, the MTC model is not organized
around content-oriented courses. Under such a system, the need to conduct standardized tests that compare every student to one standard might be eliminated.
Ultimately, assessment that drives instruction and is always focused on improving student learning is the goal.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy.