In May, NWEA released Make Assessment Matter: Students & Educators Want Tests that Support Learning. This public opinion survey report asked teachers, administrators, and notably, students to share thoughts and opinions about assessment of all kinds.
Andrew Davidson is the student representative on the Portland Public Schools Board of Education in Portland, Oregon. Andrew just graduated from Grant High School in northeast Portland and will be attending Portland State University in the fall. Here, Andrew weighs in on issues raised in the study.
Q: What role have assessments played in your life as a student?
A: Assessments have had an impact on every part of my life as a student. They controlled what classes I was able to take and influenced how I perceived myself. Assessments are a foundational part of education, but the term “assessment” is very broad. There are informal assessments, such as when a teacher walks by your desk and notes the quality or accuracy of the work you are doing. There are also formal assessments, ranging anywhere from elementary school math worksheets to the ACT.
Once you have established the kinds of assessments, you can consider how they impact the person taking the assessments. For instance, the SAT and ACT can have a large affect on where you are able to go to school, which in one way or another completely changes your future. When students compare results on various assessments, it can either diminish or bolster a student’s self-confidence.
That is to say nothing of how other people may treat you based on their own judgment of assessment results: the looks of pity with a failing grade on a final, a suggestion to move to a lower class based on an undesirable score, or the swelling with pride when others compliment you on your scores. There are also reactions to assessments that are deliberately punitive, like when a parent withholds things from a student who received a subpar score, or when an administrator who takes library time or recess from students with similar issues.
Assessments are critical to the educational process. Without them, teachers would never know when to move onto the next subject, or how to help students understand concepts better.
Q: The survey data from Make Assessment Matter indicates that students value tests if they support learning. Which types of assessments have been most useful to you as a student and why?
A: The most useful assessments to me as a student have been those that allowed me to convey my knowledge (or lack thereof) to a teacher in a reasonable amount of time. In my experience, the more focused an assessment is on purely informing instruction, the more effective it is. It is important, however, that assessments and the interpretation of the results happens quickly, so that the teacher has time to adapt their teaching to meet my needs as a student. After all, if they don’t have time to teach me what I am missing on the test, then what is the point of taking the test in the first place?
Q: Do you think students today are over-tested? Why or why not?
A: Making a generalized statement the testing regimen experienced by students across America is difficult, because assessment conditions and practices vary so widely from state to state, let alone from classroom to classroom.
To give a slightly more definitive answer however, I would say students are currently over-tested. I say this with hesitation, because I want to be clear that I believe this excess specifically comes in the form of high-stakes testing. More often than not, in my experience as a student, attempts to use high-stakes testing to level the academic playing field have only served to widen the opportunity gap.
Certainly too much time is spent preparing for and taking tests which place a relatively large amount of value on a relatively small amount of information. I personally remember taking state tests in middle school on subjects that I was not scheduled to be taught until the following year. Taking those tests was a waste of time, a waste of money, and made me question as a student the quality of education I was receiving. That was the same test that I had two friends finish in a matter of minutes by clicking random “bubble” answers, and both of them received scores at the top of the class. Instead of being instilled with the “hard work pays off” mantra that many proponents of high stakes testing repeat, we were taught that hard work often loses to luck.
Q: If you could make one change to the way that assessments are used in K-12 schools, what would it be?
A: If I could make one change to assessments in K-12 education, I would lower the impact they had on students. This would mean decreasing the amount of time assessments take away from instructional time, lowering their cost, and using them simply as a way to influence what material a teacher is teaching and how they are teaching it. The purpose of assessments needs to shift from a way to judge students to a way to inform instruction. Some might argue that this shift will incentivize students away from studying and working in school. However, modern American workplace philosophies suggest that positive reinforcement and collaboration—not punishments—are what encourage ingenuity and productivity. Likewise, we should be taking this same approach within our classrooms. How can we expect our students to grow up to be members of a collaborative workforce if we directly contradict these principles throughout their formative education?
Testing, and especially high-stakes testing, runs the risk of alienating students and make them see each other as adversaries, competing for scores and praise. Why are we implementing systems that encourage these feelings and mindsets when we should really be focusing on encouraging academic wonder, critical thinking, and good morals?