Little Assessment Scientists
When I was in fourth grade, I took my first six exams in the fall, a second 6 in the winter and the final 6 in the spring. I came home to my mother and complained that the exams were disappointing, not always testing the most important ideas, or testing the important ideas in ways that seemed strange and very quick to me. I asked her if I could not take them, slow them down or re-write them. I was not yet an assessment scientist but rather a question or of assessments.And she said in her parent/educator voice (she worked in a school across the street from my elementary school), please just answer the questions that were posed on the exams.
What do Students Think?
I have often wondered what other students think when they are taking exams or tests. I had a variety of thoughts when I first encountered the exams in fourth grade and the standardized tests from outside of the school in later grades. How were these tests made? Were they trying to get my opinion, or were they trying to test me if I remembered my teachers opinion? Or were they just a simple rehash of the material that was taught to us out of textbooks. I can still hear my mother saying to me that it would be more helpful if I could simply do what was so kindly proposed and answer the question.
The Old Testing Paradigm
In the old testing paradigm that runs approximately for the last 100 years in America the most frequently identified reason for testing is to hold students accountable for remembering the curriculum. And this is still one of the goals of testing anybody about anything. What do they remember from the curriculum you taught them? And there is a very good reason for testing student memory for curriculum as it is much easier to determine if they remember the curriculum correctly than it is to ask them what they learned through the curriculum. A common example of the old paradigm is testing the airline pilot for what he or she remembers in the flight manual.
The New Paradigm for Testing
The new paradigm for testing has much more to do with what students learned in addition to what they remember. The example of this paradigm is testing the airline pilot for how he or she flies the airplane smoothly. Although the flight manual has advice on how to fly smoothly, and the pilot is required to remember that, the real test of how to fly smoothly is when the assessor evaluates the pilot as they fly the airplane. A second example of this new paradigm in an English class would be to test not just for the rules of writing but for the advancement of logical ideas in the writing. An example of this in science classrooms is to test for the optimization of a combustion engine and not just the parts of the combustion engine. A third example from an arts classroom is to remember the curriculum through a song and making up new songs that explain new learnings by students.
Teaching Teachers to Assess
One of the great disappointments over the last 100 years of school improvement is the failure to connect new teachers with new learning quickly enough and sufficiently robust enough to be used in a timely fashion in classrooms. For example the project method was first introduced in the 20s but was not robustly used throughout classrooms until the 70s. The standards movement, to take another example, started in the 90s and was accompanied by standardized tests. But those standards and the accompanying standardized tests have not helped students score any better over the last 30 years. How will we be able to more quickly get teachers to assess not only what has been remembered from the curriculum, but also to assess what has been learned? Performance Assessment may help lead the way for both students and teachers.
Assess Student Thinking
Performance assessments ask students to demonstrate what they know and can do. The key to helping teachers use these types of assessment is to give them models for supporting students as they remember, process, and apply their knowledge. If we can do that, really get to student thinking, we will all be better.