On My Honor: On Assessments, Part I

by / 0 Comments / 178 View / October 15, 2015

Michael Brown

This column is the first of two dealing with the controversial “too much testing” going on in our public schools. I thought it best to start off with the following background information.

I crossed over to the “dark side” 16 years ago. After being a classroom teacher for 13 years, I decided to interview for a job with the Psychological Corporation, a company that produced assessments at the state and national levels. I did it primarily to earn more money; but, without looking for it, I had discovered a calling. Not everyone can be proficient at developing assessments, and as it turns out, I’ve become very good at writing test questions in mathematics. Most of my teacher friends were aghast when they found out.

Teachers invariably are opposed to outside interference with what goes on in their classrooms. And rightly so, when you consider that about 50% of what a teacher does is creative and can be considered artistic in nature. But there’s another, equally significant aspect of teaching, one which is more of a science. Educators are well trained in the principles of the learning cycle: planning curriculum, providing instruction, and administering assessment. Assessment is an important tool in the teacher’s toolbox. Knowing what is working and what should be done next is only possible by checking for understanding and progress. Assessment is carried out daily informally (formative) and periodically (summative). Summative assessments include chapter tests, mid-term and final exams, and the dreaded state-mandated spring assessment. Those mandated, summative assessments bear the brunt of criticism and are the assessments I want to focus on.

During the past two decades, state-mandated assessments have been heavily criticized as being both invalid and unnecessary. The media attention has highlighted criticism by various groups: teacher associations; university experts; and politicians. But, the process of assessment should not be confused with how assessments are used. Complaints about the misuse of tests are frequently justified. Assessment should never be used as a hammer. A valid assessment should give educators enough information to make decisions about how best to help all students learn. If assessments are used to promote or graduate students, or worse to punish teachers, it’s only natural that people will misunderstand the real reason they are given and their true value.

The process of crafting a quality assessment requires a large group of highly specialized educators. It takes a couple of years to put a set of high-stakes test questions in front of students. Even teachers are surprised when they learn about all the activities involved in creating these tests. More about that next time.

When I interviewed for the job, my eventual mentor and friend, Marilyn Rindfuss, explained assessment to me in a way I had never considered. “Mike,” she said, “do you realize that testing is a celebration?” I immediately thought, “This lady is off her rocker!” But really, isn’t that what we want for our children – to successfully complete a test and then tell the teacher, “That was easy. Thanks, you taught me what I needed to know.”

Next week we’ll take a look at recent developments and trends in summative assessment.

Michael Brown is an education consultant and former teacher. He can be contacted at michael.brown@utexas.edu.