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Living in Dialogue: What Sort of Assessment DOES Enhance Learning?

In recent weeks we have heard President Obama talk about the value of tests – even as he acknowledges that they have become too pervasive. President Obama suggested we should have tests that “enhance instruction,” and “enhance teaching and learning.” Unfortunately, the standardized tests his administration has promoted and continues to require do none of these things.

There are, however, ways to assess learning that DO enhance learning, rather than stifle it. This assessment is done by the classroom teacher, and is directly connected to the work they have students do on a daily basis. This is called “formative” assessment, and it informs the teacher and the student about what the student is able to do. It helps the teacher shape their instruction to their students’ needs, and also provides feedback to students so they can stretch and grow.

About fifteen years ago, I was involved in a research project focused on this sort of assessment with Dr. Myron Atkin of Stanford University, and I learned how to engage my students in doing peer assessment of their work, and guide them towards higher quality.

We have become so obsessed with measuring student performance through tests of one sort or another, that this genuine teacher-driven assessment has been largely left behind. Even so-called formative assessments are now often packaged and sold with textbooks, or built into predetermined timelines. Back in 2009, I asked Dr. Atkin to explain how formative assessment works best, and here is his advice:

Dr. Atkin writes:

The impressive attention that formative assessment is receiving in today’s schools stems from seminal work by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in the late 1990s. They systematically reviewed the research literature and found 580 reports or chapters in more than 160 journals that bear on the results of formative assessment. They concluded that few, if any, classroom interventions improve student learning as much. [You can download their report here.]

They also have been very clear about exactly what formative assessment is: working with a student, or a group of students, to develop a course of action that helps bridge the gap between current student knowledge and the desired educational goal. Providing feedback that is usable, detailed, and often individualized is at the heart of this kind of assessment. Formative assessment, so defined, is a pivotal element of everyday classroom teaching. It occurs throughout the school day. It requires collaborative involvement of both teacher and student. And it isn’t something purchased from a vendor that can be used in an identical fashion anywhere, like an instruction book or a cooking recipe.

Regrettably, the testing companies have hijacked the formative label and are marketing it toward ends that are the polar opposite of what the research highlights as so powerful in student learning. Much of what the companies are marketing as formative assessment consists of prescribed mini-tests inserted at specified points in the curriculum for the purpose of giving students practice for the standardized examinations at the end of the year. In much too facile a fashion, it separates assessment from teaching and learning instead of integrating all three.

One-size-fits-all, large-scale, end-of-year summative testing has already weakened education by reducing the curriculum to outcomes that can be assessed by relatively inexpensive tests using multiple-choice and other short-answer questions. We are now seeing a solidification of that influence as testing companies aggressively promote infusion of the entire curriculum with scores of mini-tests — under the guise of promoting formative assessment. Preparing for the big tests by having the students take many little ones of the same kind may be one way to teach, but it isn’t formative assessment.

The key benefits of formative assessment emphasized in the research literature are associated with changes in the classroom that result when teachers and students collaborate closely in examining the quality of student work. What does quality look like? What might the student do to improve school work to bring it to a higher quality than it is right now? This integration of teaching, learning, and assessment is complex work, but potent. It takes time and effort: hours, days, weeks, and months – not the periodic 15 or 20 minutes needed to respond to questions purchased from a remote “item bank” developed by the testing companies to foreshadow the final examination. Reporting mini-test scores to the students and even discussing common incorrect answers has little relationship to the type of feedback studied by Black and Wiliam that produced such large gains in achievement.

Standardized testing has a place in a comprehensive system of assessment, but not if it saturates the curriculum in ways that weaken teaching and learning, and not if it is directed primarily toward preparation for tests that are known to have serious limitations of scope and depth. The saddest element for students, teachers, parents, and the general public is that we know better.

Dr. J Myron Atkin is a professor (emeritus) of education at Stanford University. A version of this post originally appeared on my Education Week blog back in 2009.

What do you think? How are you seeing formative assessment used in your school? Is this helping our students?

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he no...