In his 2004 PDK article “New Assessment Beliefs for a New School Mission,” Richard Stiggins argues that assessment holds tremendous promise for improving teaching and learning – but not through accountability. Instead, he argues, we need to adopt new beliefs about the purposes and appropriate uses of test data.
Stiggins does not object to the idea of using assessment data for accountability purposes, but asserts that accountability alone is not enough.
For decades…we have believed that the path to school improvement is paved with more and better standardized tests. The mistake we have made at all levels is to believe that once-a-year standardized assessments alone can provide sufficient information and motivation to increase student learning.
In fact, this belief in the power of standardized testing has blinded public officials and school leaders to a completely different application of assessment – that has been shown to trigger remarkable gains in student achievement.
Stiggins is referring to what he calls assessment for learning. He asserts that high-stakes testing has failed to provide the intended motivation for improvement in student learning, or at least has failed to actually empower schools to improve.
So our investment of billions of dollars over six decades in district, state, national, and international testing for accountability has produced scant evidence that these tests have increased student achievement or provided the motivation to learn. At the same time, we have seen mounting evidence of great harm for some segments of our student population.
I believe this lack of demonstrably positive impact arises from the fact that our assessment systems have been built on a fundamentally flawed set of beliefs about how to use assessment for educational improvement. These mistaken beliefs have forced educators to approach standardized testing far more as a matter of compliance with political demands for test scores than as a matter of pedagogy. While this may not have been the intent, it has become the reality.
He identifies four mistaken beliefs about assessment as a tool for school improvement:
Misconception #1. High-stakes standardized tests are good for all students because they motivate them to learn.
Stiggins says that this can be the case, but only if students believe that their efforts will ultimately be successful. For many students, this is not the case, and testing is decidedly harmful:
Now consider those students whose academic record reveals a chronic history of failure. Their reality is different. For them, the realization that the bar is going even higher – that now it will be even more difficult to succeed in school – is neither invigorating nor motivating. On the contrary, it is deflating, discouraging, and defeating.
He suggests that high-stakes tests must be accompanied by supportive classroom assessment environments:
The answer is not to eliminate high-stakes tests. Rather, it is to build learning environments that help all students believe that they can succeed at hitting the target if they keep trying.
Misconception #2. It is the instructional decisions of adults that contribute the most to student learning and school assessment.
This misconception, says Stiggins, has led us to ignore the the power of students to use assessment information to improve their own learning. Instead, he says, we should consider students as “crucial instructional decision makers whose information needs must be met.”
Misconception #3. The instructional decisions that have the greatest impact on student learning are those made once a year.
While we have invested a great deal of time and money in standardized, annual assessments, we have not put nearly as much energy into making routine in-class assessments reliable or instructionally useful. This investment would pay off handsomely, because, as Stiggins says,
The instructional decisions that have the greatest impact are made day to day in the classroom.
Without question, [teachers and students] both need continuous access to evidence of student learning arising from high-quality classroom assessment. Yet we cannot provide it because our assessment beliefs and traditions have included no attention to the accuracy or effective use of day-to-day classroom assessment.
Misconception #4. Teachers and administrators don’t need to know about and understand the principles of sound assessment practice – the professional testing people will take care of that for us.
Stiggins notes that society demands third-party assessment of student learning and school performance, so teachers can’t “manipulate the data in their own favor.” This has resulted in a lack of interest in training teachers in sound assessment practices. Instead, he asserts that teachers should be trained to conduct valid, reliable assessments to inform their daily instruction. To wit:
The typical teacher will spend one-quarter to one-third of his or her professional time involved in assessment-related activities. If teachers assess accurately and use the results effectively, then students prosper. If they do it poorly, student learning suffers. And it has. Therefore, the new belief must be that, without question, teachers need to know and understand the principles of sound assessment. The evidence of student learning they gather each day influences the most crucial instructional decisions. The remedy to our current situation is to offer targeted, productive professional development to put the available classroom assessment wisdom into the hands of practitioners.
Stiggins closes the article by advocating a balance between assessment of learning (with standardized tests) and assessment for learning, conducted by the classroom teacher for instructional use.
If we engage students in continuous self-assessment over time, we can keep them believing that success is within reach if they keep striving. And if we provide them with the opportunity to use this evidence to tell the story of their success, such as in student-led parent/teacher conferences, we can tap a wellspring of confidence and motivation to learn that resides naturally within each student.
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