Transforming Assessment into Great Learning Experiences

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Last week, I attended the White House Convening on Better, Fewer and Fairer Assessments.  The event coincided with the release of final rules by the Department to guide states in administering annual assessments as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the regulations build on the President’s 2015 Testing Action Plan.  While these actions are critical, positive steps in ensuring high quality assessments in our classrooms, I think there are three simple lessons from my classroom that can be used to further this work:

  1. Teachers need more time and resources to develop assessments- This should extend to in-class assessments as well as standardized tests.  However, in order for this to happen, teachers need the time and tools to master the craft of assessment development.  Teachers rarely receive quality training this area; a 2012 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that only one percent of pre-service programs adequately address how to analyze assessments in individual or collaborative settings.  In addition, teachers need more time to plan and collaborate on assessment design.  The 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey of teaching in 35 industrialized nations found American teachers spent the most hours per week in direct instructional settings and had some of the least time for planning and collaboration.  This factor presents a significant barrier for teachers seeking to create high quality assessments that include multiple measures of student learning.

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    Patrick teaching lesson of the day while students listen and participate in discussion.

  2. Tests must be a reasonable length– In my classes, I have never imposed rigid time caps on tests because I’m more interested in assessing student knowledge instead of how quickly they can finish, but assessment design should ensure adequate time to demonstrate content mastery without making the assessment an endurance test.  Unfortunately, standardized tests often fall short in this area.  In the past, I have witnessed students working on a standardized assessment for over four hours straight without a break, with some students continuing to test beyond the end of the school day.  This type of test design is simply unacceptable and not in the best interest of students.

    Patrick working with two students.

    Patrick working with two students.

  3. Tests must provide formative feedback, not just summative- Four years ago, I implemented a new testing program in my classes.  If a student scored below a “C” on a test, I would let them re-take the questions they missed after tutoring with me. Doing so allowed the student to improve their grade, but, more importantly, it allowed them to increase content mastery.  This program has resulted in substantial gains in student performance, because unit tests are now both summative and formative tools to identify areas of student weakness in order to foster growth.  However, schools often receive limited diagnostic feedback from standardized test results, and the limited results provided often don’t arrive until after student schedules for the next year are developed.  These factors prevent testing data from meaningfully informing instruction and class placement.  A colleague once told me that, “If data cannot be used to drive instruction, then it’s not worth anything,” and too often assessment data is not received quickly enough to inform instructional practices.  Fair and high quality assessments need to be tools for continued learning, not just measures of past learning.

Patrick Kelly teaches at Blythewood High School in Columbia, S.C. and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.