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Transforming Assessment to Improve Teaching and Learning

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This post is by Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommon professor of education at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and the faculty director of the Stanford 
Center for Opportunity Policy in Education

In a country rife with political dissension, it seems that school testing is a uniting issue for a growing share of the American public--and the consensus is that changes are badly needed. Testing opt-out movements, boycotts, demonstrations, and public meetings have proliferated in the past two years as the number of tests has grown.

The 2013 PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools reported that only 22 percent of respondents felt increased testing had helped the performance of their local schools, a decrease from 28 percent in 2007. The 2014 poll reinforced the concerns: Most Americans (54 percent) said standardized tests aren't helpful to teachers, and parents feel even more strongly about this (68 percent). Sixty-nine percent of parents also opposed using student test scores to evaluate teachers, a large increase from two years earlier.

Educators are also increasingly leery of current assessments and how they are used. Primary Sources: 2013, a report by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation, found that only 46 percent of teachers said standardized tests were an accurate reflection of what students know.

This collective skepticism is a reaction to a decade of testing that almost exclusively emphasized multiple-choice tests of low-level skills. A growing number of parents and educators are uncomfortable with the fact that today's students are drilling for tests that are geared to the expectations of the past, rather than engaging in more exciting and meaningful school work that prepares them for the future.

It is in this context that new college and career ready standards may offer an opportunity to pivot toward a richer system of curriculum, assessment, and learning. This will be especially true if new assessments are part of a framework that replaces the former test-and-punish philosophy with one that aims to assess, support, and improve.

Because the new standards are intended to be "fewer, higher, and deeper" than previous standards, they have created an opening for the development of more meaningful assessments of student learning. The new tests developed by two new multi-state consortia (Smarter Balanced and PARCC), slated to replace existing tests in most states, do offer more open-ended items and tasks, and formative supports along with summative elements.

These assessments, though, will not address some of the most important higher-order skills, such as the planning, self-management, and problem-solving reflected in long-term research and investigation tasks, or the abilities to communicate orally, visually, and with technology tools, which are revealed through work on products and presentations. These kinds of authentic tasks, , which reflect the standards with high-fidelity, are needed to develop and assess students' abilities to find and use information to solve problems, explain different approaches to a problem, and explain and defend their reasoning. That is why some schools, districts, and states are developing more robust performance tasks and portfolios as part of multiple-measure systems of assessment.

These include:

  • Classroom-administered performance tasks (e.g., research papers, science investigations, mathematical solutions, engineering designs, arts performances);
  • Portfolios of writing samples, art works, or other learning products;
  • Oral presentations and scored discussions; and
  • Teacher ratings of student collaboration skills, persistence with challenging tasks, and other evidence of learning skills.

The Innovation Lab Network (ILN) of states, supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers, is one major contributor to this work, as it is creating a performance assessment resource bank that will support states, districts, and schools in accessing tasks and portfolio frameworks that have been piloted and validated, along with rubrics, student work benchmarks, and protocols that support reliable scoring.

The kinds of activities represented by these tasks--such as researching and designing an energy-efficient vehicle or investigating and representing mathematically the rising costs of different kinds of colleges--are embedded in the curriculum, usually as projects, and are not experienced as tests by students and teachers. As one of the teachers who participated in an ILN pilot of performance tasks remarked, "Students enjoy completing performance tasks much more than taking a multiple-choice test. They can show their thinking and see what other classmates produce. They enjoy being challenged and want those opportunities."

Such assessments not only engage students in more intellectually challenging work that reflects 21st century skills, they also serve as learning opportunities for teachers, when teachers are involved in using the assessments and scoring them together. Priti Johari, the redesign administrator for Chelsea High School in Massachusetts notes about her school's efforts:

Our work of creating common performance assessments and rubrics and scoring them across classrooms has created a culture of inquiry and a collaborative atmosphere.... This is a result of our process of learning about the Common Core, unpacking standards, writing lesson plans and tasks, sharing those plans, giving each other feedback, creating common rubrics, and collectively examining student work.

Two decades of research has found that when teachers use, score, and discuss the results of high-quality performance assessments over time, both teaching and learning improve. Teachers become expert in their practice and more attuned to how students think and learn. Meanwhile, students learn to internalize standards and improve their own work, as they work on tasks guided by rubrics against which they self-assess and are assessed by peers and teachers.

In New Hampshire, an ILN state, where the new accountability system will rely substantially on a bank of complex performance tasks developed and scored by teachers with support from the state, deputy commissioner Paul Leather explains, "We want to move forward on a continuum toward deeper assessment that is more challenging for students and teachers. We are aiming eventually to have a system where the students create their own tasks and teachers score them with common rubrics."

If used wisely, performance assessments have the potential to address multiple important education goals through one concerted investment. Not only will pedagogical capacity be enhanced, but assessment will remain focused on its central purpose: the support of learning for all involved.

In addition to supporting professional development, high-quality performance assessments can be part of a basket of evidence about student learning for teacher evaluation. Assessments that provide direct evidence of what students can do related to the specific curriculum they are taught can be more accurate and productive than the value-added metrics based on state test scores that are currently popular.

Although the idea of measuring teachers' contributions to student learning through gains on standardized tests is appealing--and has been valuable for large-scale studies-- it turns out that, at the individual teacher level, value-added models (VAM) have many pitfalls, including instability, failure to take many important education variables into account, and particular inaccuracies for teachers whose students begin the year scoring well below or above grade level. These are particularly problematic when state tests are used.

Some districts have devised multiple-measures approaches to teacher evaluation that combine classroom observations with a basket of evidence about student learning, including classroom and school performance assessments, as well as evidence about professional contributions. Sometimes, teacher teams work on their targets and strategies together, enhancing collaboration more powerfully. These kinds of systems also improve student learning, as teachers set goals on meaningful targets that they track using authentic evidence that emerges directly from classroom work.

Assessment can be, and should be, instructive for educators. A 21st century education system has no place for the antiquated distinction between teaching and testing. Modern assessments should provide valuable information to educators on their practice as well as insights about how individual students are doing. Such assessments should, most of all, provide students with information about how they can guide and improve their own learning.

To help construct systems of assessment that truly help improve learning, we can start by asking these questions:

  • How can we engage students in assessments that measure higher order thinking and performance skills -- and use these to transform practice?
  • How can these assessments be used to help students become independent learners, and help teachers learn about how their students learn?
  • How can teachers be enabled to collect evidence of student learning that captures the most important goals they are pursuing, and then to analyze and reflect on this evidence -- individually and collectively -- to continually improve their teaching?
  • What is the range of measures we believe could capture the educational goals we care about in our school? How could we use these to illustrate and extend our progress and successes as a school?

This new focus on high-quality assessment represents a critical juncture. Taken in the right direction, new assessments can help improve instruction and guide school improvement. Used appropriately to inform and support instruction, rather than to narrow teaching and deliver sanctions, these assessments could help unify Americans in their commitment and capacity to prepare all children for college, careers, and citizenship.

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