October 3, 2021
Just mention a standardized test and teachers and administrators alike typically have the same reaction—dread, annoyance, and agitation.
Why is this?
True educators know standardized tests often aren’t genuine measures of learning. But we have failed to answer, “What should schools do instead?”
Consider these six questions within the present framework and requirements of your school, but also with an open mind to what could be. After all, if the pandemic taught us nothing else, it’s that educators can pivot and embrace entirely new teaching models when necessary.
#1—How Do You Assess Evidence of Learning?
To revise testing, and what you show you value as a result, begin by taking inventory of current tests and determine the why behind their purpose. Ask questions such as:
- Are we held to a state test that must be administered for funding purposes?
- Are we using certain assessments because we always have?
- Are we using them because every other school uses them and its tradition?
- Are there other reasons for us to use specific assessments?
This inventory will help your academic leadership team carefully consider each test. Additionally, assess which tests may be unnecessary or misaligned with your school’s values and goals for success.
#2—How Can You Guide Your Students’ Development?
When examining current assessments, rethink students’ measures of success based on this question: How many choices will students have as adults? This question redirects your vision to create well-rounded, flexible, and well-educated adults in any field. It’s not just what you want your students to grow up to be career-wise, but who you want them to be as people.
Many schools determine traits they want their graduates to possess—like being change-makers who are curious, self-sufficient, ethical, and kind individuals. Ensure your assessments reflect those values.
#3—What Is the Purpose of Assessment in Your School Environment?
This question may be too complex to answer in one meeting with your academic leadership team, and that’s okay. It may be a year-long initiative to verbalize the answer.
But once you do, that answer can be powerful for your school—similar to a mission statement. From there, you can tailor assessments to match your school’s goals.
Maybe the purpose of assessment is to gauge how effective teachers are at reaching students. Or it might be more about how students are applying the information they’ve learned to real-life situations.
#4—Are Your Assessments Contradicting the Values You Teach?
Students see everything, even stress, surrounding standardized testing. They recognize teachers’ “cram sessions” during the weeks before the test in their effort to ensure students can recall what they learned five minutes to six months ago.
What is this teaching your students? That recall is what school is all about? It’s also confirming the negative associations that both students and adults have regarding grades and required tests.
Students who receive a poor grade often blame “outward”: They think the teacher is inadequate, the material isn’t worth learning, or the teacher “hates” them. This line of thinking damages relationships with teachers and the subject matter you’ve been working to build all year.
On the other hand, if students get a “good” grade, they often assign it to their superiority over other students, which is also a harmful mentality.
Or maybe a student is sitting for the test to satisfy a teacher’s recommendation—and not because they believe the test to be worthwhile. This creates compliant students, rather than engaged, curious ones.
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#5—Are Grades Actually Inhibiting Learning?
We’ve all heard of scandals where “good kids” find themselves in the middle of a major college cheating bust. But maybe our fingers should point at our competitive grading culture, rather than at students who fall victim to it.
In a recent ISM survey, 90% of students said grades limited their learning, and 84% said grades are primarily based on short-term recall rather than true learning. These numbers should alarm educators and should spur conversations around change.
Sometimes, teachers are also confused about who they are accountable to concerning grades. Should they really give an AP student a D? Should they try to give more A’s to make themselves look like quality teachers in an age of measuring teacher efficacy on test results and grades?
All of this can lead to grade inflation, making us wonder what grades really mean if 60% of students are getting A’s anyway. Schools can and should examine alternate methods that move away from letter grades and toward more creative and authentic ways of measuring student success.
#6—How Can Schools Pair Authentic Learning With Real-Life Assessments?
We now turn our attention toward what schools can do moving forward. Alternative grading systems have been on the rise in recent years for good reason. They can improve intrinsic motivation for students to find projects they care about and are curious about.
For example, in terms of civics classes, students can ask essential questions and answer them, such as “What can our city do about gun control?” Then they can design their projects, such as interviewing city hall officials or digging into topic-related research.
Other ideas include:
- “Defense of learning” presentations or projects, showing evidence of what the student learned
- Narratives of their learning experiences
- Student-chosen presentation formats—papers, projects, and videos to demonstrate learning
- Portable portfolios that students can leave with and continue through their college years
- Teaching other students what they’ve learned
Each of these assessment methods will mean more than an A or an F, and will contribute to lifelong memories that help students realize what they’ve learned at your school—on their own time and terms.
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