“Accountability” is a hot topic in education today. From Senate confirmation hearings, to state legislatures, to local districts and schools, everyone wants to know: How are we going to ensure that ALL students have access to a quality education and how will we know that they are learning?
From a philosophical point of view, consensus has largely been reached. We agree that all students (and teachers) benefit from high “standards.” That is to say, we all agree that having high, clearly articulated expectations of what students should be able to learn and do promotes student success and high levels of achievement. Rosenthal & Jacobson’s classic 1968 paper “Pygmalion in the Classroom” represents just one of a multitude of studies demonstrating essentially that students will rise to the level of the expectations placed upon them. Hence the emphasis on written standards (whether national, state, or local) demanding a high “level of quality or attainment.”
Where consensus breaks down is how to measure and verify student mastery of those standards. In the quest to do so, we collectively have fallen victim to “standardization,” an over reliance on a specific “idea or thing used as a measure… in comparative evaluations.” We administer standardized assessments to measure student progress, and hold both students and teachers accountable to performing adequately on those tests. Sadly, this overreliance on standardized assessments misses the mark in many ways. Test-taking becomes divorced from the active process of learning, is anxiety provoking, is devoid of student agency, and frankly in many cases is a better measure of the parents’ educational and economic status than it is of student learning. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with my son’s elementary school teachers in which they tell me some variation of, “I know he understands the concept, but he made such-and-such mistake and only earned a such-and-such score.” So he knows it, she knows he knows it, but the test doesn’t know he knows it! Overall, we have substantial evidence that our tests don’t really measure what we are trying to measure.
So why are we so stuck on them? I think, in large part, because we have bought into two fallacies, first that standardized assessments save time because they are easier to grade and second that they are more objective. We are unfortuantely frightened away from the sort of performance tasks and student presentations of learning that we would all agree are a much more comprehensive and accurate demonstration of what students know and can do, because we think we don’t have time for them and that giving a multiple choice test is quicker. This fear, however, ignores that such performance based assessments inherently combine instruction and assessment, so you are not “losing” any learning time by administering them (whereas any teacher, student, or parent will tell you that testing eats up too much valuable instructional time). Furthermore, the “scoring” of the assessment also is embedded in the conversations between student and teacher, where instruction, feedback, and reflection all occur. Again, grading becomes part of the learning experience.
As to the purported “objectivity” of such assessments, I refer you to the provided cartoon popular with educators. We call standardized tests “objective” because they provide defined questions with very specific “right” answers. But who decides what answer is “right”? More importantly, who decides what questions are worth asking? The very act of designing an assessment requires someone to decide what will be assessed, how it will be asked, and which responses will be deemed acceptable. Thus, the design of these tests is inherent extremely subjective. Personally, I would much prefer those subjective decisions be tailored to each unique student and, better yet, involve the participation of the student being assessed. Again, in this aim performance assessments and presentations of learning fit the bill.
We don’t live in a land of unicorns and rainbows where everything works as it should, so I recognize that standardized tests are a reality I can’t run away from. Just two days ago, our Innovation Lab students completed all of their more traditional subject-area midterm exams.
We refuse to let it stop there however. Today our sophomores began the exhilarating scramble leading up to their first Exhibition of Student Work, being held Wednesday February 8th from 6:30-8:30 PM at the Bruce Museum.
The exhibit, titled “Opposition and Change in Self and Society,” represents the culmination of three months of work on a joint Humanities and STEM project in which students were asked to create digital and physical pieces of art that symbolize and comment upon their views of themselves and society. In the digital pieces, created using the mathematical interface Desmos, students symbolize opposing aspects of their identity and/or comment on a change they would like to see in themselves. In second piece of art, students symbolize an important social issue and comment on the change they would like to see in that issue. The students will then present their work and learning to any and all members of the public that care to join us.
That’s an impressive performance with an excellent assessment of student learning! And it also happens to be a ton of fun!!
Hope to see you there!