Karen L. Ostlund
Standardized testing may be good for some things, but it is not an efficient way to measure school effectiveness as required by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Standardized tests do not evaluate the full spectrum of learning, particularly the skills such as technological literacy and critical and creative thinking that are most needed for 21st-century success. The system created by NCLB’s implementation has been distorted from the original intent to improve teaching and learning. New teachers enter the profession optimistic and hopeful, but are quickly mired in paperwork and bureaucracy. The entire educational system is dependent on testing, and standardized testing is challenging the belief that the classroom is focused on helping students gain the knowledge and skills to survive and thrive in the future.
Achievement can be measured by standardized tests, but the question is whether these tests and the preparation for them account for actual learning or rote memorization. During the 2011–2012 academic year, students in one Texas school district spent 45 days out of the 180 in the school year taking standardized tests or preparing for them. Is an accountability system that measures student and school progress by scores on standardized tests the best way to gauge academic achievement and preparation for the 21st century?
The drafting of The Next Generation Science Standards for Today’s Students and Tomorrow’s Workforce (NGSS) is a collaborative, state-led process managed by Achieve, Inc., in partnership with NSTA to develop new K–12 science standards that will be rich in content and practice. The NGSS will be arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education. The NGSS will be based on A Framework for K–12 Science Education, developed by the National Research Council. NGSS assessments will be conducted in a “learning performances” format. For example, consider a student’s explanation of how food coloring travels through water. It could be assessed using the grade-level band information from the crosscutting concept, Energy and Matter: Flow, Cycles, and Conservation. The expectation is for students to use some conceptual knowledge (e.g., matter and its interactions) with a practice (e.g., developing and using modeling) to develop a mechanism (particle diffusion) that explains the movement of food coloring through water. The assessment should provide evidence that students are developing a model of matter made of particles, and therefore, prescribes performance assessments instead of standardized tests to measure achievement. This type of performance assessment is used everywhere in the real world (submitting portfolios for jobs, trying out for athletic teams, and so on), but not in education, where we are preparing students for the future.
If our goal is to prepare students for the 21st century, we need to focus on critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, and innovation. However, these skills are not easily measured by standardized tests. Using a variety of assessment strategies can eliminate “teaching to the test” and provide evidence that students are developing the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century. We need to create a balance by using a wide assortment of tests or assessments to measure a broader range of student knowledge and skills. While standardized tests are useful for assessing factual and some conceptual knowledge, performance tasks are helpful for assessing 21st-century skills requiring complex thinking and reasoning. Tests should be administered in settings that enable students to demonstrate the full range of their knowledge, abilities, and skills.
Assessments should be an integral part of the teaching and learning process. Pre-tests administered before new material is presented can provide valuable feedback to teachers about students’ background knowledge and skills. Assessments during the learning process monitor how well students are grasping the material. Assessments after the new material is presented inform the teacher about how well students have mastered it as well as the effectiveness of the instructional strategies. Student progress should be continuously assessed throughout a unit of study, rather than only on a test at the end of a unit. Teachers need to assess student knowledge regularly, both formally and informally, in the course of the class and homework. This provides timely feedback about what specific knowledge and skills the students have acquired, allowing the teacher to adjust learning opportunities. The end of a unit of study is too late to find out that students have not understood the material. To ensure accountability, we need continuous assessment to help all students achieve. Teachers can use the feedback from continuous assessments to modify the learning experiences in time to make a difference. Continuous assessments that measure student achievement on a broader range of knowledge and skills help both teachers and students become more accountable than they are when standardized tests are administered once during the academic year.
Assessment of student learning is a complex and controversial topic, given the increased emphasis on standardized testing and school accountability. It is unlikely the federal government will abandon the accountability system anytime soon. However, educators are becoming more skeptical of the current accountability system, and parents are becoming increasingly convinced that standardized tests do not serve their children’s best interests. There is hope on the horizon that the NGSS “learning performances” can lead the way to broader assessment and accountability. It is time to measure what counts, rather than what is easy to count!