Gary Stager wrote this on twitter last night in the context of a conversation about using PISA scores to draw international comparisons:
And it reminded me of something Doug Christensen – former State Education Commissioner of Nebraska – once said to me when I was lucky enough to interview him for a grad school project:
So why do we assess? What is its purpose as an instructional tool? Is Gary right that all assessment is an interruption to the learning process? (And I think he was being outrageous when he said it.)
I’m going to get the slightly cynical reason out of way first. One of the reasons we assess is because schools are about much more than learning. One of the primary reasons for the institution of high school is to act as a sorting system for higher education. If we didn’t need to do that, we wouldn’t have the grading construct we have today, I think. And then Dr. Christensen’s words about how we have created a policy tool out of what was meant as an instructional tool is true, and again, if we were created a system that was purely about student learning, I don’t think the high-stakes assessments we have created over the past twenty years in so many states would have been created. (And I agree with Dr. Christensen — those tests shouldn’t be a policy tool.)
So is Gary’s outrageous assertion right? Is all assessment an interruption of learning?
No… I don’t think so. I think much of the summative assessment we do could be described that way — especially the way it’s used in most schools. But I think formative assessment is a powerful form of learning. I think about all the essays my father shredded with the editing pen before I was allowed to hand them in. I think about all the work teachers do in the editing process in every subject, assessing progress, editing writing, teaching revision, and I am convinced that is very much a vital part of student learning. That’s assessment as mentoring, assessment as skill-building, assessment as learning about how to create, revise and present. And that’s vital.
So formative assessment, I believe, is absolutely not an interruption of the learning process.
Is summative assessment?
Too often, yes it is merely an interruption. How many times have we seen this in a classroom… a teacher tries to make a final assessment on a project or paper a critical piece of dialogue between student and teacher, but all the student does is whip to the back page to look at the grade, not the comments? If students look only at the grade on a quiz, and do not work on corrections and learn from their mistakes (and from their successes), then the assessment was an interruption of learning. But it doesn’t have to be.
Formative assessment lends itself to being a learning tool. Summative assessment requires a teacher’s work to make the assessment part of on-going learning.
Perhaps that’s the answer — assessment is not an interruption of learning if and when it can positively and directly influence the current or future learning and work of the student. If it does not, then it was an interruption of learning.
But in this model, I think it’s hard to argue for any test such as the PISA or any of the state-wide assessment tools are tools for learning, given that – in the case of the PISA, it is a closed test that students cannot review after taking, and in the case of most of the state tests I know of, students do not receive their results in a timely enough fashion to effectively learn from them. The argument about how well any of these tests can be used as a policy tool is an open debate, although I’d argue that we have to be very, very circumspect about how we use them, but if we can come to the conclusion that they are not learning tools, but rather policy tools, it should force us to question the amount of time (and money) schools and districts are spending on these tests.
At the end, there’s something else that Gary’s comment brings up that is important when we think about assessment. All assessment is a construct. We attempt, through tests and projects and homeworks to quantify a student’s learning. We attempt to assess, but any teacher who ever played with the way they weighted assignments before handing in their grades knows or anyone who remembers when ETS rescaled the SATs one year or when the NY Regents made the Physics test way too hard, there’s a lot of space on the margins of any grading / assessment system. That’s o.k. as long as we recognize assessments for what they are — rough attempts to codify that which is very difficult to codify — what do children learn when they are in our care. If we can use these assessments to further student learning, wonderful, but if we don’t — and too often in summative assessments, standardized or not, we don’t — they do, as Gary suggests, take time away from what matters most — the time we spend with our students on learning.