In his article “Teaching To A Test Worth Teaching To In College And High School” Dr. Richard H. Hersh makes the case that in our era of high-stakes testing, in many schools expectations for student learning have been LOWERED to a lowest common denominator. Rather than expecting students to master not only content area knowledge but also the ability to synthesize, evaluate, and utilize that knowledge in complex scenarios challenging their abilities to process and use information critically we have dumbed-down the curriculum through the vehicle of simplistic assessments. He writes:

Put bluntly, we have asked too little of our students and ourselves and we have reaped what we have sown. The increasing public lament about high school and college graduates is that they cannot write or speak well (thinking made public), cannot think critically, and that they graduate with a sense of entitlement with little self-discipline or the humility of knowing that there is so much one does not know. We are not doing justice to the enabling of our human capital, the most precious civic and economic resource in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

thoughtful consideration

Part of the answer to this situation, Hersh writes, is empowering and supporting teachers to construct NEW assessments which both require content knowledge as well as the critical application of that knowledge in authentic contexts. He continues:

The answer, of course, is for teachers to develop learning objectives and assessments that simultaneously require the mastery of appropriate content and the ability to reason–to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate data in cogent and coherent ways.

While the College And Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA) (Which Hersh helps coordinate) is currently available for schools commercially at $40 per student, I would love to see a state government embrace this assessment in lieu of the battery of multiple-choice, high-stakes (and simplistically graded) evaluations now mandated for students at many levels. How much money is your local school district and state government spending on summative assessment for students today? I’d like to know that figure for Oklahoma students, but I don’t. Are we spending more than $40 per student now on summative assessment? What is our real return on that investment?

Federal guidelines for assessment of learning outcomes should provide leaders at local and state levels with a menu of choices, rather than a script of steps which must be followed. Our nation already has “report card” assessments like the NAEP, which are more valuable tools for comparing traditionally measured academic achievement across the nation than the various types of state assessments now in place across the country. Our current crop of high stakes academic assessments do NOT meet the requirements to prepare students for our 21st century workforce, IMHO. I will admit I have not personally taken the released PASS tests here in Oklahoma, but I probably should to be able to address this issue with more knowledge and credibility. Unlike Texas, which has released the full versions of past state mandated tests in different content areas and grade levels (as a result of litigation by parents, I think) Oklahoma does not seem to be publishing full copies of past tests. So, even if I wanted to take the time to take an entire “exit level” battery of exams which Oklahoma students have to take to graduate from high school, it does not appear I could readily do so today. šŸ™

In some ways, I think many of the materials and statistics we see which relate to state and federally mandated testing are a smokescreen for a broad failure to change educational practices. Many people will agree with the idea that “Our schools should be changing to help prepare students with the skills they need for success today and in the future,” but most of what I’ve seen with respect to mandated assessment (by federal and state governments) indicates we’re still focused on preparing students for the 19th century, not the 21st century. A framework for skills required in the 21st century is VERY important, and that is an important role fulfilled by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the framework of the partnership.

Framework of the Partnership of 21st Century Skills

As I mentioned in the introduction to my podcast recording of Dr. Hersh’s keynote at COSN last week, simply replacing current assessments with new ones is not a “magical fix” that will solve all the problems we face in our schools. We do, however, need to think differently (in many areas) about assessments. Rather than look to the “elites on high” to write and send out the assessments our students have to take, I like Dr. Hersh’s contention that we should empower TEACHERS to create and develop these assessments locally. This meshes well with Phil Schlechty’s central thesis in his book, “Working on the Work: An Action Plan for Teachers, Principals, and Superintendents.” The proper role of the teacher in the 21st century classroom should be properly understood NOT as merely a conduit of content and information, but rather a designer and architect of engaging work for students. If we understand and utilize assessments properly, as Dr. Hersh explains as he describes what we know about excellent educational assessment practices, we can more readily support this redefinition of the teacher’s role as well as the role of assessments:

[We know that]…learning assessment is crucial in providing appropriate and timely feedback to students and teachers; that the most effective teaching requires tight coupling of objectives, curricular materials, pedagogy and assessment. In short, testing is most powerful when it serves a diagnostic instructional function in the context of everyone understanding what is expected to be learned, linked to appropriate curricula and pedagogy, and linked to learning assessment that does justice to the complexity of the learning required. Put another way, a good assessment measure ought to give both students and teachers an adequate and accurate sense of learning objectives, standards of excellence, and achievement.

Assessments which fit this mold cannot be bestowed upon the plebeian masses by the academic elites filling the hallowed halls of commercial companies now profiting handsomely from our myopic focus on summative, simplistic, high-stakes assessments. Teachers need to be empowered to construct and administer these assessments at a local level. To ignore or oppose this need is to deny the professional capabilities and capacities of certified educators in the classroom. Unfortunately, I agree with others who have noted the agenda of NCLB seems to be focused intentionally on discrediting professional educators. I oppose that agenda, however, and support the formal redefinition of the teacher’s role in the 21st century classroom. Changing our perceptions of and implemention strategies for assessments is a key element of that sea change.

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7 Responses to Raising expectations for learning and assessment

  1. Harold Shaw says:

    Wesley – I have been following you for a while now and really like a lot of what you have to say (just started listening to your podcasts)…This post is right in line with my thoughts on testing and how we are or are not challenging our students.

    Testitus is taking its heavy toll on how teachers teach their students.

    In Maine while I don’t always agree with the powers that be, the DOE Commissionor appears to be trying to implement a “better” way. See my New Maine Graduations Requirements ( post and check out some of the links. She is proposing some of the things that many in the education blogosphere would like to see in the future and some of what you discuss in this entry. She even uses the same chart in her video presentation (if I remember correctly).

  2. vejraska says:

    This has been a hot topic in my district for the past few years. We have taken some steps in the right direction by creating our wonassessments in teacher teams, and using those to pre-assess and drive instruction. I do think that creating those assessments, and continuing to tweak them and evaluate them frequently has been a great learning experience for our faculty. But, in the end, they are still very much directed and aligned to the high-stakes test at the end of the year. I am a part of the curriculum leadership team, and our principal recently sent us to a PD workshop about creating assessments. The direction they were encouraging us to go was similar to what you mention in this post, but when we returned to our district with this knowledge, the reaction not what I expected. My principal, who is great, acknowledged the fact that assessments should be going in a more “big idea” kind of direction, but the fact is that he is measured, as we all are I suppose, byt the performance on the high stakes test. So even though he agreed with the new idea of assessment, he does not want to shift the focus of our assessments away from preparation for high stakes. I don’t know how to tackle that….any ideas?

  3. Kent Chesnut says:

    I agree with your basic premise that the narrow focus of the standardized tests is limiting student learning.
    However, I don’t see how moving test development to the teacher will help achieve the goals I believe you often espouse in your posts, student-centered learning, students having a role in deciding how they will demonstrate their learning, using constructivistic web 2.0 tools, collaboration, project-based learning…
    Am I missing something?

  4. Wesley Fryer says:

    Kent: I agree that simply encouraging or permitting teachers to create assessments is not going to promote a move to constructivist learning, PBL, etc. I see this as a piece of the puzzle. I think we need differentiated assessments, and we need less focus on the multiple-choice assessments that are now mandated by states. So I appreciate this request for a clarification– I have not read a great deal to date (or heard people address at conferences) this idea of assessing critical thinking skills with formal instruments. After reconsidering what I wrote above, I think I need to make sure people don’t get the idea that I’m encouraging people to simply “wait” until their state government embraces this type of assessment. Individual school districts certainly could utilize the CWRA, even with a subset of students, and realize value in providing students with that opportunity to practice and their critical thinking/analysis skills in a formal assessment.

    I think discussions about pedagogy and frameworks like Schlechty’s WOW framework carry the most promise for helping teachers make the transition from transmitter of information to facilitator of learning. Assessments need to play a pivotal role throughout the learning process, however, so I think some of Hersh’s ideas here are very on target. I had honestly never heard of CWRA before last week, so this is new information, material, and resources for me. I know the question of whether we should formally “assess” 21st century skills is a hot topic. I don’t actually think critical thinking is something “new” for the 21st century, I think it’s something we’ve needed and worked on to varying degrees in schools for years. So… does that help clarify things?

    I didn’t hear Hersh stay or endorse PBL or explicitly constructivist teaching and learning. He is encouraging teachers to set their expectations beyond the knowledge/comprehension level, however, saying that when we aspire to reach the higher levels of thinking on Blooms taxonomy, we ALSO can achieve the lower levels as well. This resonates strongly with me.

  5. Kent Chesnut says:

    Thanks for the clarification. My first reaction was that this improved assessment would be better than what we have now but would still leave a teacher-centered classroom (i.e. the teacher would still control the objectives, learning activities, pedagogy, and assessment). I’ll read through the Hersh links and let you know if I have any other input.

  6. Rene Meijer says:

    Hi Wesley,

    Thanks for this thoughtful and entertaining post. I do wonder about the practicality of your solution however. I agree in principle that assessment should be closely linked (and indistinguishable from?) learning. It seems logical therefor to give the teacher a more important, if not pivotal, role. From personal experience however, I do not think that most teachers are that competent when it comes to assessment.

    At universities, most lecturers are subject experts and researchers. A lot of the time teaching is a bolt on, the succes of which depends more on the individual interest and talent then on a structured effort to formally train and assess lecturers on their abilities to teach. Even primary and secondary education, where most teachers have at least had some formal training, this trianing is ussually limited to learning and teaching, but not assessment. My PGCE certainly did not contain anything on the matter as far as I can recall.

    And so while your idea is good in principle, I think it is important to recognise tat it can only be succesful if it is implemented with a very serious change in the professional development of teaching staff. Otherwise the solution might actually end up being worse then the problem it tried to solve.

  7. Wesley Fryer says:

    Rene: I completely agree that we need to focus on thoughtfully and purposefully crafting assessments in both our teacher education/preparation programs as well as in professional development. Especially in large school districts, but in small ones as well, I think there is an ethic in many US schools which does NOT view the teacher as having a role in assessment development. Teachers are handed a curriculum guide, textbook, and scope and sequence, and expected to “deliver” that material on the prescribed schedule. I’ve seen that happen more in larger districts than small ones. Part of the misconception which underlies this situation is the idea some people in central office administrations have, that a “quality education” and high test scores for all students (which is really their bottom line) can be best achieved if every teacher and student is doing the same thing, each day of the year. This is part of a drive to “align” everyone’s curriculum. While perhaps well intentioned, I think this perspective undervalues the importance of teachers crafting their own assessments, and instead cultivates relationships of dependency where teachers believe they must “receive” assessments from professional authors and the state rather than crafting them in teams or individually.

    Now, I certainly understand that for instruments to have validity and reliability, it is important that they are created in deliberate and careful ways. I’m not advocating for teachers to become masters of multiple choice test writing. What I am advocating for here is that teachers embrace and implement differentiated instruction, which also requires differentiated assessment. I am most interested in seeing learners engage in activities, including assessments, which they “cannot fake” because there is an authentic, performance component to the activity. Too often I think we provide students with tasks which, if they are completed outside of class, either fail to adequately reflect their understanding or misunderstanding of concepts and skills, or can be done in a “fake” way either by copying and pasting from websites or having a parent do the lion’s share of work.

    You are correct that at the university level, the focus is generally on lecturing and the delivery of materials. With the advent of technological tools like podcasts which can individualize and transform the options we have for content delivery, I think the opportunities for learning models to be transformed are more abundant than ever. I do agree also that this constitutes a LEARNING REVOLUTION, and not merely an evolutionary change in how teaching and learning has been conducted for centuries in a “traditional” sense. I think we need to move to much more of a Socratic approach to learning in many cases. I am not discounting a need for memorization in some areas, and I am absolutely not ignoring our need for mastery of foundational knowledge and skills. In order to innovate, we need a broad and strong foundation of knowledge. I do think assessment plays a pivotal role in this learning revolution, however, and one aspect we should understand and embrace is the need to empower individual teachers to design and utilize authentic assessments for their learners.

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