High stakes testing is a broken system. It is an industry, not an education. It’s a sorting mechanism, not a driver of equity. It discourages differentiation. It discourages student and teacher discretion in learning. It perpetuates low-level learning with crude pass/fail punishment and reward systems. It’s inauthentic. We didn’t start with a blank slate, design the best educational system we could, and then adopt high stakes testing as a best-practice in alignment with our best thinking. We got scared, dropped high stakes testing into our schools, and then re-designed our schools according to the needs of the tests, their vendors, and our politicians.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) forced us to have difficult conversations about the Achievement Gap. High-stakes testing cut those conversations short at the political and budgetary levels. Rather than look at the how and why of schooling, we decided just to measure how broken public education is in pursuit of perfecting an increasingly myopic and irrelevant system. We are left with inadequate tautologies that do nothing to prepare our students for their lives outside school. Schools that take extra time to make sure that all students can pass high stakes test do better on high stakes tests. Schools resourced to make sure that all students can pass high stakes tests do better on high stakes tests. Schools without the necessary resources to make sure all students pass high stakes tests do not do better on high stakes tests.
We knew this before NCLB, but NCLB gave us an unprecedented opportunity to quantify school performance and profit fiscally and politically from them. Naturally, we went for it. Politicians and lobbyists gifted with the problem-solving skills being driven out of American classrooms saw an opportunity and took it, believing that high stakes testing would help children. Consequently, our public schools are now structured according to opportunists’ blueprints. We can easily understand why parents fight for school choice; they want to send their children to schools that will help them pass high stakes tests and have access to careers and colleges. However, we could be offering so much more in school choice. We could be offering such a rich variety of educational options to our children that joy in learning and America’s place as a world leader would be assured because of the innovative disposition of its schools and citizenry.
What should we do?
We should take back assessment for a start. For so long as high stakes assessment exists as law, we should
- Eliminate grades. They hurt kids. They are subjective. They can be weighted. They often conflate and confuse academic and non-academic student and teacher performances and biases. They are not reliable predictors of high-stakes test performance. Ask teachers to use time spent grading on giving feedback instead; also consider paying teachers for the extra time they’ll spend on the much more difficult, much more accurate, and much more constructive work of giving feedback on learning instead of opinions on percentages.
- Eliminate arbitrary caps on who tests when. Let kids test up and test out of as many requirements as possible throughout the school year so schools can give them time to pursue their passions in learning and to reinforce strengths that can help address their weaknesses.
- Allow students and parents to opt out of high stakes testing and standards-based portfolios. Don’t force students and parents to accept curricula or pacing they don’t want or with which they don’t agree. Don’t count students who opt-out for or against schools.
- Allow schools and districts to opt-out of high-stakes testing with documented student, parent, and teacher support, and to replace high-stakes testing with scaled-up portfolio assessments modeled after those like the Virginia Grade Level Alternative (VGLA) assessment.
- Allow work done outside of school to be brought in, critiqued, revised, and assessed against standards for inclusion in portfolios. Allow student-products and supervisors’ workplace evaluations to stand as authentic evidence of students’ mastery of state standards.
- Allow student work done outside school to replace work assigned at school if it meets the same standards.
- Ask students who opt or test out of high-stakes testing and standards-based portfolios to present publicly their learning via projects and individual portfolios 2-4 times yearly to a jury of division and building-level administrators, teachers, parents, and peers.
- To accompany these assessment policies, eliminate traditional tracks and replace them with testing, portfolio, and opted/tested-out tracks. Then assign teachers to tracks that take advantage of their strengths. Or diversify schools and transportation to match families with the schools they believe best serve the needs of their children.
Regardless of the legal status of high-stakes testing, we should practice moral assessment. Assessment should serve students and their learning instead of adults and their notions of control. We should
- Eliminate grades and traditional tests in our classrooms. Test-taking strategies are not problem-solving or learning strategies. Problem-solving strategies and learning strategies can prepare students for all sorts of tests; test-taking strategies can’t prepare students to problem-solve or learn.
- Backwards design authentic assessments to goals and standards that we, in consultation with and observation of our students, consider essential to their learning.
- Foster and share students’ joy in learning.
- Share our expectations and standards up front with students as part of that process.
- Provide choice in assessment.
- Provide opportunities for student design of assignment, including the alignment of assessments with agreed upon standards.
- Help students connect with authentic audiences for their assessment.
- Teach students goal-setting strategies, formative self-assessment strategies, and debriefing strategies for improving processes between assessments.
- Coach students to react to feedback. Help them feel like part of a conversation about their learning.
- Coach students on how to access and use information according to their needs and strengths.
- Coach students to pursue learning that makes them joyful.
- Coach students to learn independently, from peers, from teachers, from experts, and from experience.
- Coach students to transfer learning across circumstances.
- Coach students from small projects to large.
- Stop everything when it feels like school as usual, find out why, and help students’ re-engage with their learning.
- To help implement these strategies for assessment reform, we should look at staffing and scheduling to provide teachers with more time to assess student work and deliver meaningful feedback. We should invest in smaller class sizes and further recruit and professionalize TAs as learning coaches.
If we don’t prove to parents and politicians that these strategies work for their children and their children’s learning, authentic assessment will never be scaled-up to the point where it can compete with test scores for media attention. This is hard work. It’s difficult to accomplish under the best of circumstances in public education. Nevertheless, choice and authenticity in assessment serve students and are morally right in a way that high stakes testing is not, and offering them is much closer to what we’ve been called to do than teaching to the test is. If we have to compromise, let’s not shut-up or concede.