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To Improve Assessment, Invest in the Classroom

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This post is by Heidi Andrade, School of Education Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Methodology, University at Albany, Albany, NY.

I was pleased to moderate the discussion at Jobs for the Future's launch event, on September 30, for its new Deeper Learning Research Series of white papers.  The ideas about teaching, learning, and assessment presented by the panelists--David Conley and James Taylor--are not new or radical, but they are critically important and extremely timely.

Why "not new"? Because we have known for decades that it is necessary and entirely possible to teach students to master core content, think critically, communicate effectively, work collaboratively, and manage their own learning. These are enduring educational goals with ample support from research, and it makes perfect sense that we are still talking about them.

What was so exciting about the Deeper Learning event was the fact that we are now talking in concrete terms about what comes next in terms of assessment in this country. The educational community is disillusioned and exhausted by NCLB-inspired testing, and it is ready for alternatives. As the Deeper Learning panel highlighted, there is no shortage of good ideas and classroom-tested practices available to us. We know what good assessment looks like (as my colleagues and I describe in this 2012 paper for JFF), we have many of the tools needed to do it, and we are in the process of creating coherent systems that make it practical.

A shift to better assessment will mean investing less in standardized testing and much more in classroom assessment--the minute-to-minute and day-to-day assessments that teachers and students use to get meaningful feedback on learning and to make productive adjustments to instruction and studying. High quality assessments based on classroom tests, assignments, homework, projects, portfolios, and exhibitions have been shown to have a significant, positive influence on learning and even on students' motivation. This too makes sense, because the basic idea is simple: Good assessment informs both teachers and students of where they are going (the learning goals and performance targets for a particular class and task), where they are now in relation to those goals and targets, and what they need to do to close any gaps between the goals and their current performance. "Ah-ha!" moments abound when classroom assessment is structured to provide guidance, not just a rating or ranking. For teachers, those ah-ha moments often arise in response to clear information about the exact difficulties their students are having and precisely what they can do to help them. And for students, the ah-ha moments often sound something like this: "Now I know what to do!" That's when learning happens.

This is all lovely, but of course there's a rub: Too few states, districts, and schools have invested in classroom assessment in general and teachers' assessment literacy in particular. In order for assessment that actually promotes learning (not just measures it) to become widespread, we need resources. Thus, I hereby propose taking a small fraction of the billions of dollars states currently spend on standardized testing and devoting it to the development of powerful classroom assessments. Who's with me? 

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