Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is Testing Education's Red Herring?

flickr CC image via timparkinson

I'm blown away by the volume of Twitter posts addressing the issue of testing in education. An inordinate amount of time and energy is being spent on the controversy, and I'm of the opinion that this is taking us away from the real task of getting on with creating effective strategies addressing the assessment challenge, and also from other educational issues that have been pushed aside by the volume of debate over testing. Before you get all riled up about the title of this post, hear me out just a bit.
  • I'm all for improving the manner in which we assess and evaluate students... we should never, never stop doing this.
  • There are undoubtedly strong arguments favouring alternatives to high-stakes, one shot win or lose forms of summative assessment.
  • We must evaluate students if we are to call ourselves professionals. To do so is responsible, necessary and important professional work.
I worry that the frenetic pace with which teachers around the world are slamming traditional forms of assessment is taking away from the real work of suggesting viable alternatives, and I don't mean alternatives that are so far removed from conventional wisdom that they don't have a chance in you know where of becoming common practice. There are logistical problems... how do we ensure that all kids are assessed fairly and comprehensively to establish appropriate educational transition plans, and to ensure that every one of them feels supported and enabled to approach their dreams without prejudice? This is no small task. I hear a lot of statements about what is wrong with the state of assessment in education, but beyond the regular "ban multiple choice exams" rhetoric, (perhaps there are viable alternatives,) I don't hear many really solid solutions to the problem... just bandwagon-jumping complaints addressing the inadequacy and inappropriateness of conventional testing methods.

Like it or not, education can't happen for free, and as long as taxpayers are paying government to provide an education system, there will be requirements for government to be accountable to them for their investment. This is not inherently bad really, is it? In turn, why shouldn't the education system be expected to be accountable for its investment in learning? It's not whether we should be accountable for what we do in education, but rather how we'll be accountable, that we should be discussing intelligently and openly. Whether students, parents, teachers or government, we should all be targeting the same outcomes surrounding and supporting student success... why not do this collaboratively in their best interests?

Cardinal rule  number one when making decisions affecting how we support kids- ask whether the decision is in their best interest to the exclusion of any other variable. If the answer is yes, you're likely on the right track, and I refuse to believe there is as agenda out there that intentionally damages kids... no matter the group, we need to default to a perspective that assumes people are doing the best they can for kids with the knowledge and experience they represent, and if that's not enough, we need to talk rationally about why, and where to go next.

Let's stop bandwagon-jumping and get talking about alternatives that have hope; alternatives that are viable enough to satisfy the testing gods on high because their effectiveness is undeniable. Let's be smarter than the problem. Let's do our homework, and instead of illuminating the problem, let's illuminate some solutions.


  1. I've been thinking the same thing for years. We can't throw assessment completely, but the tests have got to go. As Daniel Pink points out - they are only assessing logic based thinking and dismissing a whole brain approach as unimportant.

    The solution I keep thinking about is portfolio assessments. Bits and pieces of student work that show not just what they have learned, but the progression of their learning. Unfortunately I think the bigger problem is the logistics of using anything but the stand. test for assessing students.


  2. We need some deep thinking on the format of assessment... I like portfolios too, but if they're jsut a collection of samples, that won't work re. assessment... we need a process to evaluate teaching and learning through what we collect in the portfolio- an entirley doable concept in my opinion.

    I also really like the Standards-Based Learning model, but as you say, the conventional wisdom may not necessarily favor the SBL model citing inefficiency and logistical issues... that's why we need unconventional wisdom;o) (LOVED "A Whole New Mind")


  3. The issue as I see it is that standardized testing is at fault for distacting us from what we need to do in the classroom. I also don't think that tests are designed to intentionally hurt kids and education, but that is what is happening. Even when other assessment practices are in play, alot of teachers feel pressure to have their kids perform well on these things at the expense of other meaningful oportunities in their classrooms. We need a model(and I think it is coming because of my conversation with the minister's aide this weekend) that tests the health of the system and gives teaches the respect they deserve (eg. sample testing)

  4. Hi Kelly,
    As you know, there are different contexts to standardized tests, and an infinite array of methods to "test" kids skills, knowledge, insight...whatever. It's my perspective that the large-scale, norm-referenced standardized tests like the PAT's are the ones being vilified, and fair enough- not sure I agree with the comparative nature of these tests myself.

    I must say, however, that criterion referenced tests designed to determine what test takers can do and what they know, not how they compare to others (like the common assessments in our District) are a different element and one I have no issue with.

    Additionally, standardized tests used to justify funding, placement, to determine a LD or other issues relative to the student's personal learning plan are also fine in my opinion- I have administered hundreds of these and experienced their benefits to students in real-time.

    Using uniform procedures for administration and scoring of a test (standardizing) in order to assure that the results from different people are comparable isn't necessarily a bad thing. I do agree with you that the whole routine has been bastardized and that teachers are feeling held at ransom over them, but amidst the "issue" we've really lost our way. That's what I mean by the "red herring" bit.

    It will take intelligent analysis (like it sounds the minister is engaged in) and not flash point, reactionary opposition to make any change stick. If we know anything about this government we have, and particularly the current Ed Ministry, we know that incremental, careful change is the order of the day- and I'm fine with that, I guess. it's hard waiting sometimes, and there are intangibles to be sure, but we have to remain positive.

    Love to hear about your conversation with the Minister's aide...
    Hope you're enjoying the summer break!

  5. Two words: Authentic Testing. Providing students with formative, real-life tasks that ask them complete projects and do things that are real and authentic. There are lots of precedents out there of people doing this. The folks at Edutopia talk a great deal about this kind of assessment.The folks at the Buck Institute have a great deal of information on Project-Based Learning. This is the kind of assessment that provides real knowledge of what students can do and what they have learned. The problem with this kind of assessment is: 1) Educators are going to have to be treated as professionals who can diagnose and accurately report whether their students get it or not, 2) It is expensive, much more expensive than bubble-sheet testing, but if our politicians are serious about testing, then show me the money. and 3) The kind of accountability this type of testing would provide is individualistic and tailored to the student. Not much room for numbers and number comparison. Politicians are hung-up on numbers. They want to boast that they raised this score or that score with their reforms. This kind of testing would not allow them to do that. No educator is against "accountability." What educators do want is a form of accountability that is fair to students and educators alike. Every existing test we currently have are very limited in their uses. The reason educators can't get past the testing issue is because it has been "done to us and our students" for the past nine years by an administration so ignorant as to think tests could tell you anything about how whole schools perform. The current administration has only shifted that testing emphasis from the schools down to the teacher where it will even make "the test" the center of what we do. If you want to know why there are so many tweets and a lot of discussion about testing, it is because those educators who have spent the past nine years in classrooms and schools have seen the damage the bubble-sheet testing culture can do both students and teachers.

  6. Thanks for your reply J. Robinson. I appreciate your commitment to the issue of testing...

    I'm going to play devil's advocate in the interest of extending this conversation- would like to hear more from you...

    Every existing test we currently have are very limited in their uses..." This is a lofty statement you make. I have administered many different types of tests and other forms of assessments, none of which I would call "limited." I would go as far as saying designed for a purpose, but limited carries an abruptly negative connotation. In my 14 years working with very-high needs kids in the special ed and couselling world, these "designed for a purpose" tests were invaluable to identify strengths, weaknesses, LD and DSM issues, developmental/ cognitive profiles etc. We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater...

    ..."Authentic Testing. Providing students with formative, real-life tasks that ask them complete projects and do things that are real and authentic."
    -I too strive to provide "authentic" assessments for my students, and I am perpetually taking steps to improve how I do this, but I struggle with the terminology- "real-life, real and authentic..." these are also very BIG words- difficult to define in a context. Is my "real-world" the same as yours? Is the real world in your country the same as the real world in mine?

    We make so many over-arching statements like "we have to prepare the child for the real world by providing real-life tasks so they can become the active and well-adjusted citizens we want to become the leaders of the 21st Century..." can you say moving target?

    I'm also perplexed by how seldom science is included in the testing debate among the group-think that's surrounding the issue. It seems to me that much of the debate is subjective and/or political, and not so much based on evidence that "formative, real-life" assessments of whatever sort are actually sound and beneficial to learning.

    OK, please don't misinterpret my statements as opposition to what you have said, and I do understand the political poop storm the US seems forever embroiled in (and not just over education issues;o) I get SBL (use it in my classes and defaulted to this methodology in the spec. ed. environment), and agree that accountability can take many (perhaps infinite) forms, but I cant agree that all traditional forms of testing are hogwash.

    @GWoodJCG said it this past week, and it made a heck of a lotta sense to me- "Both teaching to the test and hating testing are wrong - embrace the data"
    Can we agree that what's needed are informed decisions by all invested parties regarding how best assessment (authentic testing) can and should be done? You may be interested in my Association's initiatve surrounding this-, and other edreform issues in Alberta, Canada... and also my gov't's perspective at

    Very much appreciate your feedback!

  7. Standards are the red herring for education reform. They brought high-stakes testing. They are intertwined with every major educational reform effort since their conception under Pres. Bush St. Learning theorists and practitioners are needed in education reform.

    Here is the heart of the problem of the U.S. public schools. It was Jefferson's purpose for schools that continue today's reforms.
    Solutions are detailed in The Audacity of Learning Theory Post found in October on my blog.


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