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:

  1. The standards movement.
  2. 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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6 Responses to Messy assessment instead of flogging with the standards

  1. Aaron says:

    Hey Wesley,

    I really enjoyed this post. Maybe I’m not fully understanding you here, and so I would like to venture asking you a question.

    I work as an ESL teacher in Mexico City, and I’m pushing to use standards in our classes. *cringe* Now, this is where my question lies: The standards I am referring to are in relation to describing what a student should be able to do before he/she can move onto the next level of learning English.

    These standards, or proficiency statements, refer to spoken, listening, reading, and writing skills that we need to help our students be able to do. Does that make sense?

    I guess I’m wondering if you agree with these kinds of standards. They totally, in my humble opinion, step away from the traditional classroom assessment and embrace what you call “messy assessment.”

    Why they are messy:
    An example of a Spoken Standard: “I can ask someone else and talk about my day-to-day activites and routine work requirements.”

    How do you cleanly evaluate that? It defies a handout (loved that line by the way). It doesn’t fit nicely into a test that you can memorize for, and then later forget. It has been, so far, very messy.

    Here’s what I am thinking of doing with this standard: I am working with my students to help them prepare what they would say to meet this statement. (We’re on class 3 around this so far.) When I say prepare, we’re listening to authentic interviews from CNN, National Public Radio etc where people describe their daily routines, we’re using that audio to glean useful language and notice verbs etc., and we’re doing a lot of writing.
    I’m encouraging them to think about, and reflect upon their work. We’re writing it down, we’re exchanging and writing comments on each other’s work (prepping for an introduction to blogging)
    The goal is not a test. The goal is to record them in conversation, and insert that conversation in a portfolio as proof that they have met the standard.

    Wes, I hope this makes a little bit of sense, but I really wanted to ask you for your opinion. Do you think this is messy? Or do you think this is an example of an evil standard?

  2. Mike Muir says:


    I agree with one addition. Assessment might drive where we’re going (although we tend to think of it as setting up an accountablility system – measure what we value), but we need to bridge the content/curriculum and the assessment. You hint at this with your assault on worksheets. We need to address instruction.

    Recently, in a series of posts, I’ve talked about this very issue. In Part 2 of The Answer to Curriculum Might Not Be Content, I make the case that hard to teach kids can learn the high status curriculum and point to examples of educators who have been successful. And in Part 3, I offer ideas and resources of where we might look for help on what our instruction should look like so both hard to teach and easy to teach students can learn to high standards

  3. Wesley Fryer says:

    Wow, these are great questions Aaron. I guess I am seeing the pendulum swing so far in the direction of standards and formal, multiple-choice assessment here in Texas that maybe I’m overly demonizing the ideal of standards. Clearly just as we need educational assessment, we need educational objectives. Rather than narrowly define them at the knowledge and comprehension level of Bloom’s taxonomy, however (which tend to be the easiest to measure I think) we should be “taking it up a notch”– or better yet several notches.

    Maybe we should be searching for characteristics that define “messy assessment.” I think one hallmark would be that the assignment cannot be faked: it can’t be copied or merely plagiarized. It sounds like you are challenging your students to think on their own, synthesize ideas from real-world news sources, and represent their understanding of those ideas in their own words using the language. This sounds like a winning combination ot me.

    Often we get hung up on baggage that goes with words for which we have prior schema. Maybe “standards” and “objectives” fit into this mold. Just as I would never advocate doing away with assessment in education, neither would I advocate doing away with objectives. I think it is critical we focus on how we define those objectives and how they are operationized into tasks: inside and outside the classroom.

    Another hallmark of messy assessment can involve audience. If we are just doing something for an audience of one (the teacher) then there may be a higher chance the activity is a fake one: not very authentic. If we are doing it for a broader audience, especially one that extends beyond the walls of the traditional classroom, then chances could be higher that the work we’ll do will be authentic. And the assessment can be messy.

    Thanks for posing these challenging questions, Aaron. I will be eager to hear what others thing too.

  4. ellenweber says:

    What a wonderful story to remind us to go more with how the brain works and to create more brain friendly settings for learning and assessment. I’d like to see a story about what that setting would look like and how it would prosper our teens who are dying in today’s secondary school. Thanks for this key work toward improved results!

  5. […] Moving at the Speed of Creativity – Messy assessment instead of flogging with the standards […]

  6. […] One of my favourite posts was Messy Assessment instead of flogging with standards. I don’t know if Wes coined the phrase “messy assessment” but he certainly has caught my attention with it. In Canada, we have not had to fight the heavy emphasis on testing and standards but I sense it’s coming. I appreciate not only Wes’ thoughts but I like the fact that he carries on the conversation within the comments. Here’s part of Wes’ answer to a comment about this post. Another hallmark of messy assessment can involve audience. If we are just doing something for an audience of one (the teacher) then there may be a higher chance the activity is a fake one: not very authentic. If we are doing it for a broader audience, especially one that extends beyond the walls of the traditional classroom, then chances could be higher that the work we’ll do will be authentic. And the assessment can be messy. […]

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