The Obama administration’s call this past weekend for Congress to “reduce over-testing,” and to cap assessment to 2 percent of classroom instruction time comes amid a debate on testing that has turned toxic, with assessments becoming synonymous with punitive policies instead of with directing teaching and learning.
Despite years of focus on accountability, inequities in student learning and achievement remain stubbornly large.
Part of the problem with the current assessment landscape is that teachers have not been given sufficient support or resources to use tests as an effective part of the teaching and learning process. It is considered acceptable to send teachers into the classroom with minimal training in this area.
This lack of assessment literacy has been endemic in American schools for decades.
Recent research confirms this.
A 2014 study conducted for Northwest Evaluation Association found that 85 percent of district administrators believe that teachers are not adequately prepared to integrate assessment into their instructional practice. Moreover, 55 percent of teachers say that they never took a course on assessment literacy during their pre-service programs, and nearly half (49 percent) of these teachers indicate that such a course would have improved their teaching practices.
NWEA has convened the Task Force on Assessment Education charged with illuminating specific gaps in assessment literacy and developing recommendations for expanding teacher and education leader expertise in this field to the benefit of students nationwide.
K-12 teachers, leaders in educator preparation, assessment experts and college faculty will lead the exploration of new ways to improve learning opportunities for both the pre-service and in-service educators to understand and use assessment effectively, and meet student needs.
What have been the barriers to the presentation of practical pre-service or early career training in this facet of professional practice?
This question was the focus of a team of national teacher education leaders who recently convened by the Classroom Assessment Endowment at the College of Education, Michigan State University.
They speculated that some barriers could arise from the culture of higher education, others from the context of professional practice in education, and still others from the psyche of college of education faculties
First, the effective use of high quality assessments has historically not been an institutional priority in higher education in general. There are no incentives for faculties to become assessment literate. As a result, these faculties of teacher education may lack members with a sufficiently strong foundation in assessment practice to teach it to candidates.
It follows, then, that if inadequately prepared faculty members teach classroom assessment, the result can be confusion among their students about the meaning of sound practice. This can leave candidates frustrated and unwilling to seek further development of their assessment capabilities.
Combine these issues with the reality that the pre-service teacher training curriculum already requires much from candidates, and it is easy to exclude assessment training.
Secondly, matters related to the realities of professional practice come into play. New teachers and school leaders have many new challenges to address and assessment is just one small part of what can be overwhelming performance demands. Moreover, teachers have not traditionally been trusted to provide evidence of student achievement in accountability contexts—annual tests do that—so there has been little apparent need for teachers to be assessment literate.
Finally, licensing and certification standards traditionally have been vague about the meaning of assessment literacy, making it difficult to discern the appropriate content of assessment training. Moreover, the dominance of the standardized testing culture in schools leaves no interest in or resources for supporting the in-service development of assessment literate teachers or school leaders.
Unless these and other barriers are understood, addressed and removed, there will be no assessment training in pre- or in-service programs and instructional quality and effectiveness will suffer.
But working to expand teachers’ expertise in the use of assessment will not be sufficient. If we are genuinely committed to helping every student reach his or her full potential, we also need to question our assessment systems at the school, district and state level – and the federal mandates that inform them.
Are they centered around the needs of students? Does the data provide leaders at each level what they need to improve our schools? Is the process of assessment designed to advance, rather than impede, student learning? And do we have the individual training and knowledge that will allow us to use this information effectively?
The administration’s Testing Action Plan is a good step in this direction, one that can help empower local communities to reduce the amount of time spent on assessment while capturing and putting to use information that will help us achieve our collective goals of educational equity and excellence.
It is time to work together — as teachers, principals, professors and leaders in assessment — to build greater understanding of assessment and its role in driving the outcome that matters most: student growth and learning.
Matt Chapman is the President and CEO of the Northwest Evaluation Association, a national thought leader and advocate for assessments that help students’ academic growth.
Rick Stiggins is the founder of the the Assessment Training Institute,and the author of books, articles and papers on assessment practices in the classroom and its impact on students and student success.