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November 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 3

Perspectives / Reclaiming Testing

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      Since Socrates first started asking questions, testing students has been part of teaching and learning. A teacher asked his student questions so that he knew how to guide his student and so that the student knew what else he needed to learn. For just as long—probably since the first school put more than one student in a classroom—teachers have been using tests to compare their students with one another.
      Today, the sorting function of testing dominates. First used in World War I to determine military recruits' suitability as officers, large-scale standardized tests sort, track, and stratify individuals and groups, separating the qualified from those judged less qualified—for employment, higher education, and the professions. With the number and kinds of standardized tests proliferating—in 2007, U.S. students will take an estimated 68 million tests to meet the requirements of NCLB alone—testing also serves a reporting function: Parents, policymakers, and teachers all look to tests as the definitive proof that students are learning.
      Even when tests purportedly measure achievement and are closely aligned with curriculum, using assessment as an occasion for learning—as opposed to using it to assign a rank or provide accountability—has become a secondary function. A desire to ace the international rankings drives the current emphasis on testing even as the rhetoric suggests that the tests will leave no child behind.
      • Blurs the line between instruction and assessment. Everything students do, researchers Siobhan Leahy, Christine Lyon, Marnie Thompson, and Dylan Wiliam tell us (p. 18), is a potential source of information about how much students understand. Whether they are conversing in groups, completing seatwork, working on projects, handing in homework, or sitting there looking confused, student activity is of interest to observant teachers.Teachers who consciously use such information to support their students' learning may feel as if they are negotiating a flowing river of data, the authors note. But when they learn to hone in on relevant assessment information gained from drafts, observations, ungraded quizzes, and the like, they improve their own practice as well as their students' future work. Research across countries, content areas, and age brackets shows that such formative assessment boosts achievement more than other reforms, including external tests. In addition, the research says,Improved formative assessment helps low achievers more than other students and so reduces the range of achievement while raising achievement overall.
      • Involves students so that they care about learning, not just grades. Authors Jay McTighe and Ken O'Connor (p. 10) tell us that just as budding athletes need to play real games, students need authentic contexts for assessment. If students do no more than practice skills or take small tests that prepare them for larger ones, they are not likely to participate in the practice runs enthusiastically.
      • Provides meaningful feedback. At the heart of effective teaching is feedback—feedback that provides advice on how an individual can improve and that avoids comparisons with others. Students must be let in on the secrets of assessing themselves, many of our authors note. Using models and rubrics, evaluating others' work, and revising their own work should be a part of daily practice. Red Fs, overgenerous praise, unfocused comments, and obscure statistical ratings must give way to oral and written commentary that explicitly tells students something about their own work and what they can do to make it better (p. 10, p. 18, p. 39).
      • Examines how students think. Marilyn Burns (p. 26) details the evolution of her practice as a teacher. Focused at first on improving her lessons, she gradually came to realize that assessment could be more than a way to determine grades. Now she uses her questions to probe as well as to stimulate students' thinking. She calls on students who don't volunteer and makes it clear to them that it is important for her to know when a student doesn't understand. And she no longer assumes that a right answer means a student does understand. Merely spotting when students are incorrect is relatively easy compared with understanding the reasons behind the thinking, she writes.
      • Leverages large gains. Not one of our authors believes that formative assessment is easier than handing out and collecting multiple-choice tests. On the other hand, formative assessment is not imposed from external sources, does not narrow the curriculum, and does not discourage or label students. Each teacher finds his or her own way of incorporating formative assessment into daily practice and school culture. Although complicated and demanding, it is within the individual's power to accomplish. Moreover, with the collaboration of other educators, the practice of formative assessment becomes more powerful. By reclaiming testing, we reclaim the noble tradition of teaching.
      End Notes

      1 Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139–147.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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