Purpose of Testing Needs to Shift, Experts Say

By Lynn Olson — October 18, 2005 4 min read
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“We’ve got to stop using assessments as a hammer and begin to use them appropriately, as a diagnostic and learning tool,” Kurt Landgraf, the president of the Educational Testing Service, said at the organization’s 2005 Invitational Conference here last week.


The two-day event, Oct. 10-11, focused on ways to embed assessments directly into teaching and learning to help teachers adjust instruction as it’s occurring. In the United States, participants argued, far more attention has been paid to using tests as an accountability tool, and to sort and classify students, than to shape what actually happens in the classroom.

While teachers give tests or quizzes and assign papers all the time, they said, the quality of those tools is often lacking. What’s more, the purpose typically is to grade students rather than to modify instruction or provide students with detailed feedback.

Approaches suggested here for improving classroom assessments ranged from sharpening teachers’ questioning techniques to computer-based systems that allow continual tailoring of instruction to students’ responses.

“If assessment is going to be particularly powerful in achieving enhanced learning outcomes, then it’s at the classroom level that we need to focus our attention,” said James W. Pellegrino, a professor of cognitive psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “As instruction is occurring, teachers need information to evaluate whether their teaching strategies are working.”

Curriculum Tests

In particular, he pointed to a need for better “formative assessments” that are given regularly in the classroom and provide quick information that lets teachers and students adjust what’s happening to promote learning. “The catch here is that it isn’t easy to do this well,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “It doesn’t happen anywhere near the level we would like.”

Mr. Pellegrino said little is known about the quality of assessments now included with commercial curriculum products. Working with the 427,000-student Chicago school system, he is examining the tests included in four popular math programs:Everyday Mathematics, Math Trailblazers, the Connected Mathematics Project, and Math Thematics.


The good news, he said, is that the curriculum assessments reflect both state and district-level academic-content standards and those from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

They also include assessment resources that go well beyond testing students’ factual knowledge, he added. Examples include journal prompts, open- response problems, laboratory investigations, and long-term projects that require students to reason mathematically, apply their knowledge, use multiple solution approaches, and communicate about math either orally or in writing.

But it’s typically not made clear to teachers which standards are being assessed, the level of cognitive knowledge that’s being tapped, the range of expected student performance, or how to adjust instruction based on students’ responses, Mr. Pellegrino said.

Interviews with teachers, he said, suggest they don’t fully grasp the assessment components built into the curricula or how to use them during instruction.

M. Susanna Navarro, the director of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, in El Paso, Texas, said that teachers often have trouble figuring out how to assess students at the highest levels of cognitive demand, and that most teacher education programs provide too little preparation in how to integrate high-quality testing with instruction.

“Formative assessment is still not seen as integral to lesson planning,” she said.

Term Being Hijacked?

A focus on “assessment for learning” can yield “radical effects,” said Dylan Wiliam, the senior research director of the Learning and Teaching Research Center at the Princeton, N.J.-based ETS. “I think we’ve got a quite clear view of what it is we want teachers to be doing,” he said. “The challenge is to get teachers doing this at scale.”

Charlotte Danielson, an independent consultant based in Princeton, said engaging teachers in the design and use of assessments, particularly through the close examination of student work, gives teachers strong feedback about their own instructional practices and about common student misconceptions.

“When this is done by teachers working together,” she said, “the entire intellectual capital of the school is enhanced.”

Lorrie A. Shepard, the dean of the school of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said she worries that the term “formative assessment” is being hijacked by commercial test publishers, which are marketing exams that could take time and resources away from instruction.

“If you thought the high-stakes test given once per year was distorting the curriculum,” she said, “wait till you give lots of examples all year long.”

Ms. Shepard urged commercial publishers and states to focus on devising rich curriculum units with accompanying assessments that could provide models of good instructional and assessment practices for teachers.

Other participants at the New York City conference focused on computerized “intelligent tutoring systems,” which can adjust computer-led instruction as it’s occurring, based on students’ responses to complex, multiple-step problems.

Edmund W. Gordon, a professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University, indicated that he foresaw a move away from using assessments chiefly as a tool for sorting, classifying, and rating schools and students. “I predict that educational assessments in the future will be more and more concerned with the improvement of teaching and learning as its principal purpose,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Purpose of Testing Needs to Shift, Experts Say


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