I realized just how prevalent the nation-wide call to reduce testing has become when I opened my local North Carolina newspaper one day last month (yes, I still have the print edition delivered daily!) to an article titled “Superintendents, Education Advocates Join Effort to Reduce School Testing” The North Carolina state superintendents association and the N.C. Educators Association have demanded fewer required tests. The Public School Forum, an education think tank in Raleigh, NC, has identified “streamlining assessments” one of its chief concerns for 2015. North Carolina is one of many states demanding that there be a decrease in the amount of time spent assessing students in our schools.
As there are many different purposes to assess, there are numerous types of assessment that are competing for “air time,” and to eliminate any of the forms of evaluation could lead to an incomplete picture of a learner. If you think of it as a cycle, you can understand that to leave out any part of the cycle could be detrimental to the assessment of students. To read more in-depth descriptions of the assessments listed below, go to AssessmentLiteracy.org.
If we generally agree that these types of assessment are all important and valuable activities, why has assessment become such a hot topic? One reason is because assessment results are impactful. It makes sense that something which has material consequence in the world would come under careful scrutiny.
Another trigger for the outcry to reduce assessment in our schools might relate to the lengthiness of many of the Next Generation assessments. It’s startling to hear how much time they actually take to administer. Couple that with the number of district-wide and classroom-based assessments, and it’s easy to believe that students across the nation are devoting a large chunk of their learning time to either taking assessments or preparing for them. We all want the majority of the time that students spend in school to be spent learning and experiencing enriching activities that broaden their horizons. These formative learning years are precious, so it is important that this work of streamlining assessment be taken seriously.
How do we balance assessment to meet the various needs of all of the education stakeholders (students, teachers, administrators,—even policymakers)?
First, we have to remember that learning is important to everyone, from the student to the lawmaker. Thus, as emphasized and represented in a helpful infographic on the AssessmentLiteracy.org website, “The purpose and value of assessments differs among the various stakeholders, from students to administrators to state Departments of Education.
As Georgia’s State School Superintendent Richard Woods mentioned in a letter earlier this year, “What we need in our schools is a model that personalizes instruction, empowers students, involves parents, and provides real feedback to our teachers. Schools should not view tests as tools that can doom them to failure, but as tools that serve as a compass pointing them down the path of success.” I couldn’t agree more. Although this calls for a transformation in our assessment culture, it’s in the best interest of the kids we serve. I know that change is hard, but it is possible. I like to believe that this outcry over too much testing is the beginning of such change. The first step is to question. The second step is to do something about it.
If the goal is to reduce the number of assessments students are exposed to, all stakeholders within a district need to come together and identify their local information needs, conduct an inventory of assessments currently in use, and make choices around which assessments deliver the information required. Assessment inventories are gaining popularity in schools and districts across the nation. The process involves identifying and mapping out of all of the assessments that occur within a single classroom, in a grade, and in a school building during one school year – and rolling this up to the district level. From folks in the field who have undertaken this work, I hear that it is laborious, time-consuming, and hard to get everybody in the same room long enough to do it. But I also hear that it is incredibly enlightening and a powerful professional development activity. An outcome of streamlining assessments might well be recalibrating the emphasis put on accountability and renewing the focus on assessment that more directly helps drive student learning.
I’m excited to see what happens in North Carolina and across the country. Even though I work in assessment, I don’t find this movement threatening. I want what’s best for kids—my kids and everyone else’s, too. I want them to love learning, feel empowered, and supported. Taking a good, hard look at our assessment practices and making them as efficient, effective, and relevant as possible is a healthy step toward a balanced approach.