Grant Wiggins’ article “Healthier Testing Made Easy” in the April 2006 issue of Edutopia magazine focuses on one of the most critical issues facing education today and likely in the future: How do we assess learning, and do it in a balanced way so the tail of measurement does not wag the dog of educative experiences? Unfortunately, I think Grant has an overly-optimistic view of the natural effects of a high-stakes testing mentality and standards-based focus on teachers and administrators, and regards the process of “fixing” today’s all-to-common myopic educational focus on standardized tests scores as a simple problem with a simple solution.
I am all for authentic assessment. In the article, Grant also supports authentic assessment and even uses a favorite term of John Dewey, “educative.” He writes:
What do I mean by “authentic assessment”? It’s simply performances and product requirements that are faithful to real-world demands, opportunities, and constraints. The students are tested on their ability to “do” the subject in context, to transfer their learning effectively.
The best assessment is thus “educative,” not onerous. The tasks educate learners about the kinds of challenges adults actually face, and the use of feedback is built into the process. In the real world, that’s how we learn and are assessed: on our ability to learn from results.
This line of analysis is right on the money. However, Grant (like many in the “real world” of K-12 education as well as in the edublogosphere) maintains a faith-based approach to educational standards as a primary means of salvation for our schools. He continues:
The local task is to honor the standards, and the state evaluates local work against those standards through its tests. And all state standards identify the kinds of authentic work that should occur in instruction and assessment locally.
Educational standards have become the sticks with which teachers flog students daily in the classroom, and administrators flog teachers. They are the sticks with which school boards and district superintendents flog campus principals, and by which state and national educational leaders flog the educational enterprise in general to prove “it is broken.” Yes, our educational system is in dire need of transformative reform. Yet I continue to maintain that “the standards movement” is more of the problem than it is part of a solution.
The two primary dynamics which have moved us to our present state in the educational system (besides the general dissolution of our social fabric thanks to a complex set of factors accompanying “the third wave”) are:
- The standards movement.
- A myopic focus on high-stakes accountability for student performance on multiple-choice tests which primarily measure skills at the knowledge/comprehension level of Bloom’s taxonomy.
Insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over, even with more intensity, and expecting different results. We can’t reasonably insist that “the standards will save us” in our schools, because they won’t. We need to quit focusing on standards and testing, and instead focus on empowering teachers and local administrators to teach with passion and freedom. It is less important that teachers “cover the curriculum” and much more important that they authentically engage students and connect with them through authentic learning tasks. Teachers as well as students need to be excited and passionate about learning, but that can only happen when they are taking part in activities they care about.
If I could declare a war in the realm of educational public policy today, it would probably be a war on the mentality of worksheet-driven instruction. Why do so many teachers think they are doing their job if they are force-feeding worksheets to students? Worksheets do not an educative experience make! Grant is correct in this article: We need to move to authentic assessments so we help prepare students for the challenges of LIFE, not just the challenges of this year’s state assessment. Unfortunately, he does not seem to suggest a viable mechanism for moving education in that direction. The standards movement will not take us where we need and should want to go.
Assessment is the key, but the assessments we need are not ones that can be neatly graphed in the local newspaper as a bar chart or pie graph. They do not lend themselves to statistical analysis as easily as the (hopefully) valid and reliable standardized assessments to which we regularly subject students. But they can be quite authentic, so students cannot fake them. They can challenge students to think and test their thinking at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy. What we are talking about here is messy assessment. And it is high time we embraced it.
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