Commentary

We All Need to Get Smarter About Testing

—Getty

Assessment literacy is a low-cost solution to improving America’s public schools

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There are several big-budget fixes we could make to improve America’s schools. We could substantially reduce the number of students each teacher must teach. Similarly, we could boost the talent level in our teaching force by seriously increasing teachers’ salaries to attract our brightest graduates. Sadly, both of these suggestions cost more money than our nation is currently willing to expend.

There is, however, a far less costly strategy already available and ready to be installed: assessment literacy.

By enhancing the assessment literacy of those among us who have a stake in public education, we could bring about dramatic improvements in U.S. schools. And we could do so for a relative pittance.

So, what is “assessment literacy”? Well, although minor definitional differences exist among its proponents, assessment literacy describes a person’s understanding of what education tests can do—and what they can’t. To be assessment literate, one needs to comprehend the basic concepts and procedures of education testing likely to influence education decisions.

"Assessment literacy describes a person’s understanding of what education tests can do—and what they can’t."

It isn’t just necessary for the teachers and administrators involved in the day-to-day operations of our schools to be better informed about education testing. In addition, education policymakers—including legislators and school board members—also need to become assessment literate. Nor dare we forget parents of school-age children and, indeed, all citizens whose society tomorrow will be shaped by the quality of schools today. Today’s students also deserve to understand high-stakes education tests that are increasingly determining their in-school and out-of-school successes.

But how can assessment literacy definitively improve our schools all by its lonesome? The answer is simple: As matters stand, well-intentioned people who, sadly, know squat about education testing are making too many decisions that dramatically diminish the effectiveness of our schools.

One of the most serious errors stemming from decisionmakers’ assessment ignorance takes place when we evaluate the quality of instruction chiefly according to students’ scores on annually administered standardized tests. If students’ test scores are high, instruction is regarded as successful. If students’ scores are low, the opposite judgment is reached. In the United States, we have a century-long history of using standardized tests to compare test-takers. However, scant evidence is available attesting to the ability of today’s standardized tests to do an accurate job in evaluating schools or teachers. The very testing techniques that best compare students often turn out to reduce the evaluative accuracy of such tests, leading to serious and sometimes irrevocable mistakes.

For example, truly skilled educators are mistakenly evaluated as ineffective and called on to change their “weak” instructional approaches. Unskilled educators, mistakenly evaluated as being effective, are not thought to need instructional assistance. Both mistakes result in a worse education experience for students.

Procedures do exist to improve the evaluative accuracy of today’s standardized tests, but decisionmakers rarely implement them because of insufficient assessment literacy. You don’t demand a fix of something you don’t know needs fixing.

Another serious mistake caused by insufficient assessment literacy is the current underutilization of formative assessment. Formative assessment, in which evidence from informal classroom tests is used by teachers to adjust their ongoing instructional procedures—or by students to adjust their current learning tactics—is firmly supported by research. If implemented successfully, formative assessment can actually double the speed of students’ learning, according to researcher Dylan Wiliam.

To reiterate, increased assessment literacy could diminish our reliance on the wrong standardized tests to evaluate teachers—and it could also spur teachers’ increased classroom use of the formative-assessment process. Making either of those changes separately could bring about meaningful improvements in our schools. Making both changes at the same time would lead to whopping improvements in the quality of American schooling. Happily, our nation’s education leaders could pull off this twin-win for mere peanuts. It’s a bargain.

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