March 11, 2021

Arthur Camins: Just Say No to State Standardized Tests. Then, Say Yes to Assessment That Improves Learning.

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Arthur Camins is a lifelong educator currently working as an assessment specialist at UC Berkeley, which is why he has particular insights into the current debate about the 2021 Big Standardized Test. The following piece is reposted with permission.

As he writes, we can do better, and we have a choice.

Assessment That Improves Learning

Make the choice. Just say no to state standardized tests. Then, say yes to assessment that improves learning.

This isn’t like the Reagan era’s glib admonishment about addictive opioids or recreational marijuana. Rather, it is a call to finally break the national self-abusive addiction to consequential standardized tests. Unfortunately, it is not a choice the Biden administration had made even amidst a pandemic that has dramatically disrupted education for K-12 students and rendered external test results meaningless.

The Covid-19 pandemic shines a harsh light on what we already know: It has never made sense to invest so much money in and give outsized weight to assessments with limited, if any, useful diagnostic information or motivation value. Inequity is well known. We already know where to target resources. The United States chooses not to do so.

In the short run, the US Department of Education should wave 2021 test requirements.  In the long run, Congress must change federal education law. However, educators still need to know what students are thinking and learning. Across the country, policymakers, administrators, and teachers need to shift their attention to assessments that can help students every day. I do not mean more graded tests. Classroom, where results received as percentages, letter grades, or comparisons with classmates often inhibit learning.

Fortunately, powerful assessment alternatives are well known, but the investment has been paltry: Support teachers to make sense of and use what students are thinking every day in class to move their learning forward. Support teachers to hone their skills to express expectations, nudge students, provide meaningful engaging material, and orchestrate supportive learning environments. Above all, remember that it is up to each student to do the learning.

Evidence of academic learning and social and emotional needs empowers educators to provide targeted clues to students that can use to improve. Such thinking promotes long-term memory rather than easily forgotten correct answers.

These principles are basic to how the brain learns and are as complicated as students. Whether and how to act on this knowledge is a choice.

sports metaphor illustrates the point.  Baseball pitchers throw balls in varied ways so that batters do not anticipate and cannot hit what pitch comes their way.   Imagine a batting coach saying to a player, “You swung the bat 10 times and only hit the ball 30% of the time. Try to hit the ball more often next time.” Helpful? How about this: “In the last ten games, you hit the ball and got on base only 15% of the time.  Your teammates did so 28%.  You really need to improve.” Helpful?

That would be a useless, if not harmful, coach.  No teacher worth her salt would behave similarly with students.  Effective teachers try to help students know what specifically they need to do improve.  However, concurrent with teaching strategies such as offering meaningful, attainable goals, providing targeted clues, and encouraging effort, practices persist that work against learning.

A substantial body of evidence indicates that extrinsic rewards are counter-productive for complex tasks. Yet teachers and parents alike retain the self-fulfilling conviction that without grades students will not try. Similarly, most honest educators believe ubiquitous required standardized tests are more harmful than helpful. Most of us know deeply and personally that the associated shame is a motivator to give up. Yet this is the constant companion of common test practices in the United States.

Why?  School districts demand teachers turn in grades with varying frequency.  Teachers, principals, and superintendents believe parents want it.  State and federal law demand standardized test results as a condition of funding. Cash-strapped states and school districts look to do testing on the cheap.  Carpe Diem! A multibillion-dollar industry complete with expensive lobbyists has grown up to push such testing and practice materials.  Against those powerful forces, administrators, school boards, and state and federal policymakers have the power to say, “Stop it! We need something better to help, not harm.”

Imagine if a big chunk of taxpayer-generated money went instead to help teachers get better at that coin of the realm–discerning what parts of important concepts tend to be hard for students to grasp, asking accessible questions to reveal the range of student understanding, and interpreting varied responses.  Assessing and providing well-targeted feedback when students try to apply their learning to related but unfamiliar contexts is the equivalent to developing the understanding and confidence to hit the ball no matter what pitch is thrown.

Unfortunately, the inappropriate use of consequential testing has poisoned the waters generating assessment fear and aversion. However, moving student learning forward is too important to give up drinking from the assessment well.

The data for effective assessment is hiding in plain sight.  It is everyday student work. Here is one brief example assessment, drawn from elementary science education.

The goal for scientists and science learners is to explain natural phenomena.  For example, a teacher may guide students to make sense of their observation that shadows are longer in the early morning than midday. To investigate what causes varying shadows, students observe a flagpole at different times of the day. To probe further, they use a flashlight at variable angles and a pencil to model shadows from Sun positions at different times of the day.  Most students can now correctly answer questions about the flagpole shadows.

However, a discerning teacher wants to know, “Can students apply what they know? What are they thinking?”

She’s been collecting responses for several years to share as anonymous student work.  She challenges her class: “Students noticed that a tree’s shadow was longer at 9 AM in winter than at 9 AM in fall. Write an explanation.” The next day, she tells the class, “Here are four explanations from other students. In your group, make a claim about which is the most accurate explanation. Include evidence to support your thinking.”

  • The Sun is higher in the sky in the winter than in the fall so the shadow is longer
  • Trees get smaller in the winter when they lose their leaves so the shadow is longer
  • They measured wrong. The Sun’s place in the sky does not change from fall to winter.
  • The Sun is lower in the sky in the winter than in the fall so the shadow is longer.

Next, the teacher facilitates a whole-class discussion, making sure to draw the class toward evidence as the arbiter of scientific claims.  Then she directs students to revise their original responses.  Now the teacher can monitor the progress of students’ scientific understanding, and their ability to marshal relevant evidence and revise their thinking.

Through these reflective processes, students get targeted feedback from peers and their teachers to improve their own learning.  This is the kind of learning that sticks with students and builds self-confidence. Improving these practices is a far better public investment and use of teachers’ and learners’ time than the standardized tests that only enrich their publishers and demoralize educators and students.

Inappropriate use of testing during the pandemic further poisons the assessment waters generating fear and aversion. However, moving student learning forward is too important to give up drinking from the assessment well.  We have a choice.

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