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Assessment Roulette – A Test by any other name…

April 28, 2010

I had the opportunity recently to sit in on multi-national panel discussing different/better ways to assess and measure student academic achievement.  I found the discussion interesting, for various reasons, but also a little frtustrating.

There was a great deal of analysis and discussion about what the best ways are to measure student progress, which kinds of tests and results communicate academic achievement — or lack therof — better, etc.  One education leader from Canada shared a great wheel-chart with us that showed the various spectrums around which “achievement” was being measured and the implication was that Canada is light-years ahead of the US when it comes to measurement.

I found the information fascinating, but I kept going back to a nagging worry: does it matter really, what sort of fancy assessments and measurements, charts and graphs we use to show what our kids are learning, when we KNOW that they aren’t learning enough, consistently, and at all grade levels? I mean, is THIS new fancy reporting system going to tell us anything new?  And, how will it actually improve learning?

Here in Washington State, there was much hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing about the WASL (WAshington Assessment of Student Learning).  We had spent untold milions (probably billions, but do we really want to know how much?) planning, writing, revising, this ultimate “nirvana” of a test.  Then there was the backlash once it was out: it was too hard, it idn’t represent student learning fairly, it wasn’t an accurate assessment of abilities, it put special needs kids in the same bucket as the mainstream, etc., etc. ad nauseum. And, our kids spent a month preparing to take the WASL, then roughly three weeks of regular class time was dedicated to taking the WASL…and at the end of all this we found…

…our kids weren’t achieving what we’d hoped.  So…it MUST be the test.  Down with the WASL.  Our present Superintendent of Public Instruction, Randy Dorn, was quick to abolish the WASL once he took office.  Last year was the last time our students tok the much-lauded, much maligned WASL. Now, we are so much better off. We have the MSP!  No more WASL, that old troublemaker.  Now we have Measurement of Student Progress. That’s much better than measuring achievement; it doesn’t matter what kids have accomplished, just that they’re getting somewhat better compared to last year when they were last tested. And, frankly, I don’t actually know how the MSP differs from the WASL; perhaps due to budgetary constraints we’ve had to drop down to three letter acromyms instead of the previous four.

This is like the discussion panel where there was serious dialog about the value of “homework” for students vs. “home learning.” The though was, is there any reason for kids to take home what they’ve learned in school to have additional practice after schoo?  The “new thinking” was, isn’t “home learning” better where students themselves decide what activities they should pursure at home to better augment their in-class learning?  It’s a great idea, one that I would have heartily voted for as  a kid, because who wouldn’t prefer to pursue the educcational opportunities present in “Sponge Bob” over the dry and reptitious practice of memorizing multiplication tables?

But the fundamental question remains: does any of this matter if our kids aren’t learning any better? As one educator pointed out during my session which came later in the day than the assessment panel, our educational outcomes haven’t improved markedly in 30-40 years. Back then, we had “homework” and we were memorizing math facts. We took regular tests that showed progressive achievement and we received report cards that documented that achievement (don’t get me started on whether an A-F grading scale is better or worse than 1-4), and our mistakes were pointed out to us in red ink, not ego-friendly purple.

It’s like this, folks: that our kids aren’t learning has nothing to do with the testing. We can create the best test in the world and right now, I guarantee it’ll show that our kids’ achivement lags behind their potential. We can’t rosy-up the picture by creating fancier tests. That doesn’t help anyone.

I agree we need a fair and accurate way to measure performance, but FIRST we have to create the perforamanc so we can measure it. It’s no secret our kids just aren’t learning enough; we don’t need a better test to tell us that.  We need to focus on making sure the kids can learn, and that means creating the kinds of environments where learning can occur — ones with order, respect, some measure of discipline, attention on the teacher who is trying to teach a lesson. In the absence of that, I guarantee we’ll continue to see the same types of results, across the board.

‘Course, we’ll have fancier charts and graphs to show how we’re failing our kids and better data to quantify how badly.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 7, 2010 4:53 pm

    Great article . Will definitely copy it to my website.

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