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Testing the Right Way

In medicine, the quip is that pathologists know the definitive answer about disease - only too late. In education, it can be said that teachers know the answer about effective instruction and learning the same way - belatedly. I thought of this analogy after reading what Arthur Levine, president emeritus of Teachers College at Columbia University, wrote in an op-ed ("Better schools through smarter testing," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 3).

Levine stresses the importance of ongoing feedback to teachers as they design their instructional strategies. What he is referring to is known as formative assessment. In contrast, the typical way of determining what students have learned is to wait until the content taught is over and then administer a test. This is known as summative assessment. While both forms of assessment are important, I think formative assessment is not fully appreciated. As W. James Popham wrote in Transformative Assessment (ASCD Member Books, 2008): "Put simply, formative assessment looks at ends (or outcomes) as a way of deciding whether means (or inputs) need to be changed."

All teachers want their students to learn. But it's a mistake to believe because certain material has been covered in class that students have learned the material. Maybe they have, but maybe they haven't. The only way to know is to get feedback from students that allows valid inferences to be drawn. I hasten to point out, however, that not all feedback is of equal value. For example, students may nod that they understand a concept, and yet that behavior is not necessarily evidence of learning. Even veteran teachers are often misled this way.

Formative assessment is already more than a half-billion-dollar business ("Test Industry Split Over 'Formative' Assessment," Education Week, Sept. 17, 2008). As pressure mounts to boost test scores, I expect to see increased spending on anything that has even the remotest possibility to do so. But it's important to remember that not all formative assessment is of equal quality, any more than all summative assessment is.

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