Beyond Today’s Assessments

By: Bob Wise


For years, teachers have rightly complained that tests encourage them to focus on a narrow set of knowledge and skills rather than the broader set of abilities they know their students need. Now, however, the testing world is about to undergo the biggest transformation in a generation, and the result is likely to be higher-quality tests that measure what truly matters.

Last month, I noted that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts and mathematics have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. Over the past three years, two groups of states have been developing new assessments to measure student performance against those standards. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a group of 19 states, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), a group of 24 states, aim to have their new assessments in place in the 2014–2015 school year.

These new assessments will differ from the standardized tests teachers have come to know and dislike. For one thing, they will be delivered by computer, although paper versions will be available for schools that lack the equipment or bandwidth to administer the computerized versions. The use of technology will enable much quicker results.

In addition, the assessments will go beyond multiple-choice responses to allow for short and extended constructed responses as well as some performance tasks that give students the opportunity to complete in-depth projects to demonstrate their analytical and problem-solving abilities. Although teachers have said that testing takes up too much instructional time, these tasks will be the kinds of activities students should be doing.

As a result, the new assessments will measure a broader range of knowledge and skills than current tests. They will assess whether students have a deep understanding of core content and whether they can use their knowledge to think critically, solve problems, and communicate effectively. That is, these assessments will measure the kinds of deeper learning teachers want their students to develop, and that they want to teach.

Don’t take my word for it; two of the nation’s leading assessment researchers, Joan Herman and Robert Linn, looked at the designs and sample items of PARCC and SBAC and found that the depth of knowledge they will tap is substantially higher than what current tests measure. They note that the tests are not yet in place, but they are moving in the right direction.

Of course, states face substantial challenges in implementing these new assessments. They will cost more than many states currently pay for testing, although the information they get from them will be much richer and more valuable to teachers than current tests provide.

Teachers and their allies must make the case for new and better assessments. The Alliance for Excellent Education held a series of events on December 3, when the results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) came out. PISA is a test of reading literacy, mathematics, and science given every three years to 15-year-olds in the United States and more than 70 countries worldwide by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

PISA was not designed to measure students’ mastery of a school curriculum but, rather, to evaluate what students can do with the information they have learned—in other words, the kinds of abilities students ought to demonstrate and tests ought to measure.

With the adoption of the new assessments, the hope is that the next round of PISA results will show even higher levels of learning for U.S. students.


Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C.  alliance@all4ed.org
Published in AMLE Magazine, January 2014.

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5 comments on article "Beyond Today's Assessments"

This article is very interesting because it focuses on the positive aspects of future testing. As a pre-service teacher, it can be a little discouraging learning and thinking about the rigid standardized assessments my students will undergo. It is defeating to consider how much learning time is dedicated to these tests, especially with the understanding that some of my most creative and inventive students will score poorly in spite of their intelligence. It is refreshing to know that with all the changes occurring in national standards with CCSS, testing will change for the better. I am eager to see how these tests that incorporate real life skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and communication will change the dynamics of standardized testing!

—Jessica
10/12/2014 11:05 PM

I really enjoyed this article because I focused on the advancements of testing not necessarily the negatives of today's system. Our system in place now has its problems of not fully assessing our students full knowledge, but in this article it gave me a glance into how they will fix it. Moving towards technology based test will not only speed up the testing process but will also translate into real world scenarios. Technology is everywhere in the world and getting our students use to its applications will be huge. These tests also offer more than multiple choice answers, allowing students to show there true knowledge. I am excited as a future educator to see the advancements in assessment. The only way to advance is experiment with new methods of assessment. They tried basic testing with scantrons and multiple choice and that didn't work. Now it's time to try something new and see how it goes. If we end up having to tweak it in the future so be it, we're making strives towards the best way to assess students.

—Garrett
10/13/2014 4:37 PM

The movement from testing that requires black or white answers to testing that incorporates the possibility of having “gray” ones, is an exciting idea. Because of the assembly-line approach of mass testing, it is often easiest to require yes or no answers, where in actuality, sometimes an answer can be correct in multiple ways, given analytization, critical thinking, and opportunity for an explanation of the answer. The emphasis of the testing being administered via computers doesn’t seem like much of a transition, however, as the testing I remember was administered on a computer and I graduated in 2010 and am currently serving as a pre-teacher. I think the emphasis need not lie on how the tests are administered, but what is being asked of the kids taking the tests. The transition from No Child Left Behind to the Common Core Standards is going to require a deeper, broader testing system as the material being taught and the expectations have deepened and broadened as well. The ones who oppose CCSS are going to oppose the testing methods that come with it, regardless of the obvious improvement. I foresee people criticizing the amount of time the tests take to take as well as grade as well. However, as a product of the NCLB act, I feel I can confidently say I would rather spend a day of testing where I could explain and write out my answers and thought process, rather than filling in little bubbles.

—Dara
3/5/2015 7:24 PM

Mr. Wise,

I enjoyed reading your stance on the testing in the common core, I am currently studying to become a teacher and this really helps me understand the common core and it’s testing. I was a student in the public school system not too long ago and I feel that I got through school just by knowing the test and studying to pass the test, not by understanding and learning the information given to me by my teachers. I hope that the common core prevents this from happening anymore and allows learning to be just about learning.

-Brandi

—Brandi
3/8/2015 11:41 PM

Mr. Wise

Considering assessment to be an activity directed toward the development of better classes instead of a way to get a grade for the students is an evolutionary step every school in the world should take to ensure that the students are getting the most out of their education.

As an EFL teacher in Ecuador, I am constantly seeing how valuable lesson time is lost in the process of taking standard tests whose only goal is to have a grade of the record, but are that are not focused on fostering effective learning. The time that would saved on the application of the computerized tests would result in more time to use in effective teaching, which I believe is a great step forward from traditional education.

—Jose
6/13/2015 1:28 AM

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