Monday, September 8, 2014

Standardized and summative tests: Let's think about why

The other day I wrote about standardized tests. I suggested they are bunkum, or nonsense. Maybe not so much nonsense as nonsensical in that we give and give and give standardized tests but seem to have forgotten why we give standardized tests except to gather data that tells us how terrible our teachers or students or schools are.

After I posted those observations, I was reading about the PISA 2012 results. It should come as no surprise that the US did not do well. But I also found research that shows state-by-state analysis of the results based on parental education. The US still doesn't measure up too well though some states are more competitive than others.

My reading led to a rather heated discussion about the value of such assessments. I contend the assessments themselves aren't useful if we overtest (and we do overtest) because teachers spend too much time preparing students for tests. Is there residual learning as a result of test preparation? Good question. If there is, I can't imagine it's substantive.

There are many discussions about the use of "big data" though when teachers (or anyone) will find time to sift through all of the data, and aggregate or disaggregate it in ways that are meaningful to individual teachers for their grades levels and for specific content areas is a concern. And then if teachers will get any of that data in a sufficiently timely fashion to make any difference in the way they plan and implement their lessons.

Which leads me to a recent post by Dr. Justin Tarte who asks if summative assessments are obsolete. Now this could be poking the wrong bear, but I believe he has a point.

We know students don't learn at the same pace or the same way. We have to provide some structure and it's not unreasonable to expect students to work together on the same thing at the same time. In the "real world" those experiences are meetings of some sort.

Dr. Tarte also notes that if teachers are using formative assessments. . . . well, I need to stop there. Because we have to assume that teachers are using formative assessments and by that I mean that a) teachers know what formative assessments are and how to use them effectively; and b) teachers are using formative assessments consistently and continuously so at any time they have a general idea of their students' capabilities and challenges.

Don't be hatin' on the first supposition because we all know teachers who are not clear on the concept of formative assessments, who believe that all they have to do is give their students exit slips at the end of the class but never bother to do anything with that information.

In all forms of assessment, the differentiator is using the information from the assessment to help students continue to learn and to improve their learning. As one teacher said, "The test is too late."

And if the test is too late, if that summative assessment is too late, why bother with the summative assessment?

Dr. Tarte points out that if we know where kids are and aren't in their learning, why give a summative assessment? Why lose part of or an entire class period to give a test that is essentially unnecessary?

Kids cramming for tests isn't learning. It's cramming for a test. It's the student hoping to remember too many unlearned things for as long as the test takes. It's the teacher hoping. . . . I don't know what the teacher is hoping. That the students will retain the results of their cramming for longer than the test period?

I'm not really a fan of eliminating tests. I think rethinking why a test is given makes sense and what the test actually assesses, other than students' abilities to stay up late and memorize a bunch of stuff that is otherwise meaningless to them.

So I appreciate the article that tells us it's a waste of time for students to cram for tests. Years ago I would give my students the option of completing a project for their literature class. They could write a paper if they wanted, or they could create something: write a song, make a game, create a video, whatever. Whatever they did, they also had to include a short explanation of how this thing they created demonstrates what they learned in the class. I got amazingly creative stuff from students. I got to the point that I asked students if they wanted a take-home final or an in-class open book final. Either way it was going to be open book. Why? Because in the work place I get to open books or do research on the Internet any time I need or want to. Those skills are important, especially when working under a deadline. If the kids hadn't read the texts or done any of the work for class, cramming wasn't going to help anyway. They knew up front they'd have the choice, so they still needed to do the work to know where to go to find support for whatever they had to say about the questions. And most of my tests were short answer or essay because I wanted them to write. Maybe intuitively I knew that any other kind of exam was a waste of their time and mine.

As we think about assessments--formative, summative, and standardized--I think it's really important for us to think about why we give these assessments, and what we hope to glean from the results. Not for our benefit, but for that of the students and their learning.

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