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It Takes More Than a Minute to Win It

Note: Trenton Goble, Chief Academic Officer of MasteryConnect, is guest posting this week.

Today I am going to take a deeper dive into the world of educational testing. I will hopefully make sense of it all in Friday's post where I will explain the importance of teaching students how to build a garden shed.

While I was a student, from kindergarten to graduate school, I took tests. Lots of tests! More often than not, I did very well on those tests. I was a good test taker and consequently, I was considered smart and a good student in the eyes of most of my teachers. On occasion, I ran into concepts that I didn't understand, but it usually wasn't a problem. Invariably, I had earned enough points so that the test wouldn't affect my grade, or I found ways to earn extra credit. I once picked paper up off the floor in my history class for a week to earn a little extra credit. My teachers didn't seem overly concerned when I didn't understand a concept. When they finally found out I had struggled on a test, it was time to put the test behind us and move on. At some point early on, I learned that tests had little to do with learning, and everything to do with collecting points.

What would you do if you were a teacher and your job was to ensure that every student in your class mastered the skills and concepts that he or she was supposed to learn? I will admit that this is a loaded question. Every teacher who reads this will see this for what it is - an extremely complicated question with no easy answer. Many of my non-educator friends will wonder aloud: "Well, isn't that your job?" Both will be right. There are no easy answers, and there is no escaping the expectation that all students will learn. The real questions we need to ask are 1) How do we know if a student has mastered a skill or concept and 2) What do we do if he or she doesn't? There are a myriad of options available to schools and teachers to answer these questions, but which is the best?

Many of our current testing practices are focused on collecting data that fails to identify what a child actually knows or doesn't know relative to specific skills or concepts. Often times, the data is acquired long after the actual concept is taught. In either case, there is little opportunity to provide interventions for struggling students. Take, for example, the one-minute timed reading test. Schools all over the country are basing student growth in reading on the results of a one-minute timed test. Throughout the year, students are given a leveled passage to read as quickly as they can while a teacher counts the numbers of words and the errors committed. The results are inputted into the computer and the summary information exits the printer in the form of a line graph or pyramid chart. Teachers are told that the information gathered from these tests will correlate to reading comprehension levels, and may also predict how well students will perform on the end-of-level reading test.

While in many cases this may be true, the only thing that the test is actually measuring is how quickly and accurately a child reads text. Anyone who has ever taught a child to read knows that teaching letter sounds, word recognition, phonemic awareness, and decoding skills is essential to improving reading fluency. However, these skills are simply elements that when combined with context and meaning, allow students to derive understanding from written words. In the occasion that a child has managed to master the skill of reading quickly but has failed to formulate meaning from the text, the results of the one-minute reading test have little value beyond identifying the child as a fast reader of text. In this example, there is no correlation to comprehension as the test advertises.

Predictive assessments like the one-minute reading test offer limited value to teachers seeking to identify the specific skills and concepts their students know and don't know. While many of you may not have been familiar with the one-minute reading test, I am confident nearly all of you are familiar with teacher quizzes, unit tests, finals, and standardized tests. What do they all have in common? In their traditional use, they provide a general summary of a student's understanding of the tested material. While they may be able to inform our understanding of what a student knows and doesn't know, they do not address that all important question: What do we do when a student fails to understand a concept or skill?

While I won't call it common practice just yet, the testing world has evolved beyond the summative test to give us the formative assessment. The process of formative assessment is built around the idea that once a concept is taught, the teacher specifically assesses that concept and uses the information to evaluate his or her own practice and provide immediate interventions to those students who are still struggling to understand the particular concept. Many have compared the process of formative assessment to a wellness check-up at the doctor's office, and the summative test to an autopsy. In Monday's post, one of the readers, Fangtai, commented:

"Most teachers know who is struggling and who is not without the use of a standardized test. A simple weekly quiz, teacher written and administered is the most reliable source of achievement data from a class."

I absolutely agree. However, I think it is important to emphasize that the real value of any teacher-given assessment comes when it is used in the formative process. When a teacher takes the time to reflect on his or her own practice and works to provide interventions for struggling students, he or she is no longer predicting or summarizing learning; he or she is actively working to ensure that all students learn.

--Trenton Goble

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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