When we talk about assessment, people think of multiple-choice tests. After all, today’s students spend a good bit of time filling in bubbles during testing season. And for teachers, a lot is riding on how our students perform on these “summative” assessments. But ultimately they don’t tell us much—the results give only a hint at students’ troublesome and successful areas, not specific detail.
Formative assessments are far more useful. Teachers’ daily efforts to gauge student learning can include simple questioning, observations, group activities, tasks, quizzes, and other methods. What we learn from it guides our teaching, showing us how to differentiate instruction for a student or change the pace or direction of a whole class.
We rarely use multiple-choice tests for formative assessment. Why? These tests can only tell what objective the entire class understood, and which objectives need to be re-taught. But they cannot show us what misconceptions an individual student might have. There is no way to tell if a student understood and correctly answered an individual item on a multiple-choice test or if they guessed. Therefore, they don’t give us sufficient evidence about how we can improve individual students learning.
And that’s my big concern about the common core initiative. Will students’ progress (and our progress in teaching them) be measured solely by summative tests that are multiple-choice in nature?
This possibility is especially upsetting since the common standards emphasize problem-solving, critical thinking, and communications skills. Can a multiple-choice test offer useful information about these goals? I don’t think it’s possible—such tests may measure comprehension and memory (encouraging “teaching to the test”) but not much else.
But obviously, summative assessment is important for accountability’s sake—and to mark whether students are on track at year’s end. So there are a couple approaches left:
Make the tests open-ended and have trained teachers score the tests. ...Or let go of testing altogether. Come up with a summative assessment system in which teachers are observed throughout the year and offered the support they need to improve. Track students’ progress through portfolios of work that are collected, analyzed, and supplemented over time.
Either of these methods will likely be more expensive than having computers scan multiple-choice tests. But, with the education system asking our students and teachers to move to a more challenging and complex system of education, maybe our methods of assessment need to move in that direction too.
Todd Rackowitz has been teaching math for 19 years in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, and for the past 11 years at Independence High School. A National Board Certified Teacher since 2001, Todd is a member of his district’s mathematics leadership team as well as the Center for Teaching Quality‘s Implementing Common Core Standards team.
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