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.
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. 🙁
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.
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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