We have fallen into a trap, and as we struggle to break free, we are pulled further and further in. We all seem to agree that schools need to be improved. We are concerned about the competitive disadvantage of having an educational system that is inferior to that of our neighbors. So we ask ourselves, how bad have things really gotten? And then we pull out a measuring stick.
There are two kinds of tests, administered at two different points in the learning process. Formative assessments are given while learning is underway, to check progress, and to indicate areas for improvement. The timing and the content of formative assessments is crucial, and can include pretests, comprehensive tests over all material covered, and then tests on specific areas that were shown as weak on earlier assessments and then re-taught. When effectively used, they are tools for both the teacher and the student, each taking in the relevant information and taking responsibility for the work that needs to be done to complete the learning task at hand.
Cumulative assessments are given when the teaching and learning process is complete. It is a measure of mastery achieved once all opportunities for improvement have been offered.
The standardized tests that dominate the lives of schools are formative assessments. They are snapshots of progress, given midstream in a child’s education, without regard to the individual learning needs of the students, given at the same time and under the same circumstances everywhere they are administered. They should be used to gather data, and to evaluate students’ needs as learning continues. They should be used to guide the further instruction of individual students.
The tests might be a useful tool for instruction – if they were actually used as formative assessments for the students who take them. But they are not. They are regarded as measuring sticks for schools, not for the children who attend them.
For the students, these standardized tests are treated as cumulative assessments. They are given at the end of the school year, and their scores are sometimes used in calculating a grade for a class.
Instead of using data from standardized tests to help the students who actually took the tests, schools react by making changes that are intended to improve scores the following year. Often these changes amount simply to increased instruction in test-taking skills. Because we value the scores as a statement of a school’s status in measuring up to other schools, we look at progress in test scores from year to year and ignore the fact that the students who took the test one year are not the ones being tested the following year. We use whatever data we collect to inform instruction for the next set of test-takers. For schools with limited resources that are under tremendous pressure to demonstrate “improvement,” helping the students who performed poorly this year becomes a lost cause.
Do we really care more about the progress of a school as a whole than we do about the students in it?
We are misusing this tremendous opportunity to improve the education of our students – the individual children who deserve the best education we can provide. And we are doing this because of our obsession with keeping score. We want to know if we are falling behind our neighbors more than we care about our own kids.