Federal Opinion

Obama Knows Best, Part One: How Should we Assess Learning?

By Anthony Cody — April 02, 2011 3 min read
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The journalist Michael Kinsley once said “a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth.” A week ago, President Obama opened his mouth in an unscripted town hall, and the truth accidentally fell out. By now, you have read his words. You can view the event here.

President Obama was responding as a father, and reflecting on how he sees his own daughters, Sasha and Malia, experience tests at their exclusive private school. This is an excellent model for the way student learning should be assessed.

Just to be clear, the whole point of my post Monday night was to draw a contrast between the model of assessment that President Obama described, and the one currently being developed by Department of Education policy. In his response to three of my four questions, Mr. Hamilton has completely ignored President Obama’s thoughts, and instead has described in great detail all the myriad forms of testing the DoEd feels are necessary. The model offered by the President cannot be forgotten simply because it is not “official policy.”

The real question now becomes, “Is Department of Education policy truly guided by the wisdom and insight of the man we elected as President?”

So let us return to what President Obama said was appropriate for his own daughters.

Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn't a high-stakes test. It wasn't a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn't even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn't study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

This aligns with what research says about assessment. To be useful it ought to be low-stress, low stakes. The purpose should be to help teachers in the classroom understand where students are strong, and where they may be struggling. This is the essence of formative assessment, and it is worth taking the time to understand what this is. Current thinking has been greatly influenced by a paper done more than a decade ago by two researchers in the UK, Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black. You can download their seminal work, Inside the Black Box, Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment, here.

Wiliam and Black show through extensive research that assessment can be tremendously valuable in promoting student growth, but only when it is closely tied to the classroom practice of the teacher. The teacher needs to have that information immediately, in order to provide useful feedback to the students, and modify instruction accordingly. It is called “formative” because it not only informs - it reshapes lessons that are underway.

This sort of assessment is actively undermined when we shift our focus to high stakes tests of any kind. And when those high stakes tests are given with greater frequency, that does NOT make them formative. I posted an interview some months back with Dr. Myron Atkin. He was so clear on this, I want to share his words again. He said:

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.

In the extensive answer provided by Mr. Hamilton, the description he offers of formative tests supported by the Dept of Ed is much more closely aligned with the “hijacked” form of formative assessment than the authentic assessment that Wiliam and Black described. No, a test is not a test. There is a distinction between formative and summative assessments as Mr. Hamilton suggests. But there is a much more critical distinction between assessments that are developed by teachers, closely connected to their classroom instruction, and these state-mandated high-stakes tests that will emerge from the latest efforts by the Department.

As I said, there is a great deal of wisdom in those 338 words spoken by President Obama last Monday. We are planning a Save Our Schools March next July 30 to ask that our schools be allowed to follow his vision. Please join in our efforts. Tomorrow, Obama Knows Best Part Two: Too Often we are Using These Tests to Punish Students or Schools.

This guest post by Stephen Krashen and Susan Ohanian describes in more detail the great expansion of testing now under way: High Tech Testing On the Way: 21st Century Boondoggle?

What do you think? Are the forms of testing described by Mr. Hamilton wise? Do they align with President Obama’s vision?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.