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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why We Need to Differentiate Between Assessment & Testing

By Peter DeWitt — December 08, 2011 6 min read
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All students have strengths, and most of those strengths are not assessed through high stakes testing.

It seems that all we hear about in education is how...or whether, our students are achieving. Although not a bad topic to discuss, it is often tied into high stakes testing. Many of us in education would like the achievement discussion to include so much more than a test our students take over a few days which are created by a few large publishers who also happen to publish the textbooks used in our classrooms. All of which happens to be a billion dollar industry.

When we talk about student achievement, we should talk about the whole child (ASCD). Unfortunately with the constant focus on high stakes testing, many schools are taking science and social studies out of the classroom and focusing more on ELA and math because those are the two subjects that are tested. Although teachers should always go cross-curricular and include social studies and science in their lessons during math and ELA; the reality is that these schools are only concentrating on what needs to be tested.

The reality is that schools do not want to see their names on the School in Need of Improvement (SINI) list, which is contingent upon how students do on a test they take over a few days, so in an effort to not make the “list” schools are promoting a great deal of test prep and only focusing on the subjects that get tested. They are also cancelling recess so they can spend more time on academics and less time on taking brain breaks and getting fresh air (cancelling recess).

Our high stakes testing era is ruining education. We know that all students take a variety of paths as they graduate from high school. By focusing on math and ELA we are only educating one type of learner, and trying to put all students on a path that they simply cannot handle. In the long run, forcing a square peg into a round hole is only going to create a situation where that particular student will leave school feeling as though their needs were never met.

What has happened over the years is that students who get a 1 or a 2 on a high stakes test are not considered “proficient.” We know what that really means is that those students are not “proficient” on high stakes testing. All students have strengths, and most of those strengths are not assessed through high stakes testing.

In the long run those students feel inferior to their peers who may have received a 3 or a 4, which can ruin their self-esteem and it forces schools to focus solely on getting these students to perform well on an exam. Unfortunately this means that there is less of a focus on what a student’s strength may be, and they are at risk of never finding one while they sit in classrooms. At some point these students grow up to be parents, and we have now created a cycle where more and more people have a negative opinion of schools.

That is the major reason why we have to focus on more than high stakes testing. Recently I asked my teachers to have a week without any testing. It did not mean they were not assessing students but it did mean that they were not giving tests. The climate in the building changed for a week. Teachers and students worked on projects that were all curriculum-related. It did not matter what the grade level was, all teachers and students were engaged and we are better for it. It is my hope that all educators can have that experience and get away from a high stakes testing focus and put it back on the students.

Podcast on Assessment
The other day I participated in a podcast for ASCD with Molly McCloskey. Tom Whitby and Nancy Frey were the other participants and the topic we discussed was assessment. You can find a link to the podcast here. Molly asked us a few great questions regarding the difference between assessment and testing.

Unfortunately, during a time when we are bombarded with conversations about high stakes testing, many people think of “testing” when they think of assessment. From a public school perspective, those are the only scores we hear about when our state and federal education departments discuss assessment. When we go to websites to find out how our schools are doing, those sites typically only focus on high stakes testing but there is a big difference in assessment and testing.

Schools are assessing students in a variety of ways. Those methods of assessment are informal and formal as well as formative and summative. Assessment is a useful and powerful tool for teachers and principals. When we explore quality assessment with our students, we find their strengths and weaknesses. We learn what they can do well and where they need our help.

When we focus on strengths, we can find reliable methods to enrich our gifted population and help the self-esteem of learners who struggle in areas that are tested. It gives us the opportunity to differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of all learners within our classrooms. The reality is that all classrooms have diverse learners, regardless of whether some are classified or not.

Formative assessment happens every day in the classroom and needs to be a part of daily instruction. It is completed through observation of students as well as through conversations with students. Formative assessment can be done through an individual observation or small group and whole group observation. Teachers can easily see when students do not understand concepts by quickly checking for understanding during the lesson.

Formative assessment is not graded. It is kind of like when an athlete learns a new technique, they do not instantly use it in a competition. Instead, the coach observes the athlete using the new technique in practice first. As the athlete practices, the coach offers suggestions for improvement until they master the new technique.

Students play an important part in their own learning when using formative assessment. Students can assess themselves as well as assess each other. Often teachers use goal setting techniques with students where they set a goal for themselves which are always kept in mind as students are learning concepts. Goal setting is also a very valuable teacher and administrator evaluation technique because it gives the learner, whether they are a child or an adult, ownership over their own learning.

One great way to truly assess student learning is through the use of portfolios. Portfolios are a collection of a student’s best work. They are a strengths based approach to learning and allow the student to truly be at the center of their own learning. They also understand that schools are in their lives to help them rather than always focusing on low grades and looking at weaknesses.

In the End
Summative assessments are what students take at the end of a unit. They come in the forms of chapter or unit tests. High stakes testing is supposed to act as a summative assessment for grade level curriculum. Summative assessments, although necessary are often where students have testing anxiety because it is a formal way to “show what you know.”

During these dark educational times we focus too heavily on testing and not enough time on assessment. Testing can cause a great deal of anxiety for students and teachers but it can be a useful tool when used correctly. Testing is often formal and ends with a grade.
Assessment, however, comes at any time and can be fluid and offer just as much, if not more, information for teachers and students. We need to devote more time to student-centered learning where they are not only assessed by their teachers but are actively engaged in self-assessment as well. Self-assessment is a way for students to be engaged in their own learning which will truly prepare them for the college and work place.

Read two of Peter’s guest blogs for ASCD:

The Importance of Movement

Sharpen the Saw

Follow Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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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