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Assessing Deeper Learning, Part II

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This post is by Rafael Heller, Principal Policy Analyst at Jobs for the Future.

In my previous post, I recommended that fans of deeper learning take a look at David Conley's new report on educational assessment (available for free here).

Full disclosure: that's a shameless plug. The report was published by Students at the Center, an initiative of my (non-profit, non-partisan) organization, Jobs for the Future, and it's the first in our Deeper Learning Research Series of white papers.

Personal interest aside, though, it's a good read. It offers a thoughtful account of the rise of standardized achievement testing, and it describes how and why we must begin to tip the balance toward high-quality, low-stakes assessments that provide much more useful insights into students' progress.

The paper won't satisfy readers hoping for an angry rant, however. Conley's interested not in railing against standardized tests but, rather, in showing just how out of step they are with contemporary knowledge about learning and human development. As he describes them, multiple choice reading and math tests aren't bad or broken so much as anachronistic. I'm reminded of the black-and-white television sets of my youth, in the 1970s--those sets were functional and reliable, and some of them are still in use today. But if you can afford a newer model, you can get a much clearer picture and many more channels.

Conley notes that two strands of research have been game-changing for the world of assessment:

First, advances in cognitive science have yielded important new insights into how people organize knowledge. For decades, achievement tests have reflected the assumption that learning is primarily an additive process, involving the steady accretion of discrete bits and pieces of information. However, recent evidence suggests that the brain makes sense of new input mainly by determining its overall importance and its place in the "big picture." Thus, while multiple choice tests can provide some useful information about students' grasp of particulars, they aren't nearly as informative as assessments (and, by extension, course assignments) that ask students to relate those particulars to bigger ideas, apply their knowledge to new and more complex tasks, and show that they grasp the overall significance of what they have learned.  

Second is the body of research that has been central to Conley's own work, identifying the various capacities that enable students to succeed in college, the workforce, and other settings. As readers of this blog know well, recent evidence strongly suggests that academic content knowledge and skill are necessary but hardly sufficient to prepare young people for the future. Researchers have only begun to understand what educators can do to teach the inter- and intra-personal dimensions of deeper learning, as well as to help students plan for the transition to life after high school, but it is clear that these things matter, and it is equally clear that in order to teach them effectively, we will need assessments that help us gauge students' progress on multiple levels.

In the end, Conley offers no simple strategy for building the robust-but-affordable, valid-but-reliable system of assessments that we require. But he does offer a number of specific recommendations for state and federal policymakers to consider, including a hopeful call for states to renew and expand upon earlier efforts--largely abandoned after the enactment of NCLB--to develop large-scale performance assessments.  

It's not yet clear which way we're headed, Conley argues, but we do seem to be at a crossroads. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle, along with educators, parents, and especially students, appear to be exhausted by a dozen years of over-testing and are ready to go in a new direction. The question for advocates of deeper learning is, which direction seems most promising? In a world of limited resources, dodgy politics, and widespread educational PTSD (Post-Testing Stress Disorder), what assessments are most worth fighting for? 

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