High School Students. Wikimedia Commons

Beyond Measuring

Why do we go to school? What and how should we be taught? A high school teacher introduces the importance of "the true, the beautiful and the good" in the classroom amidst an educational system "rooted in the practical and pragmatic."
Annemarie Bacich

From its origin, American education has been rooted in the practical and pragmatic, a system created to form responsible citizens who could pave the road to the American dream unencumbered by the ideological excesses of European education. This attitude is understandable when one thinks of the pioneers, farmers and explorers who built this nation. Pragmatic knowledge might have meant the difference between life and death on the Great Plains, or finding work in one of the bustling cities of the East Coast. From the Catholic perspective, school is also ideally a place where young people are introduced to the true, the beautiful and the good. Pope Francis expanded upon this theme in his address to Italian students and educators last May. Starting from his own experience as a school boy, the Pope talked about a beloved elementary school teacher who taught him to love school, about school being synonymous with openness to reality, about it being a place of encounter, and a place where young people are taught about the good, the true and the beautiful. He also mentioned that to be a good teacher, one must be open to reality, that is, open to learning and growing. In my opinion, school should also be a place where learning takes place through a journey of knowledge occurring within the relationship between teacher and student.

What role do educational assessments play in the reality of American schools today? Educational assessments are tools, which if used in the right way, help teachers see their students better, and help students understand the object of their learning better. When these tools are misused, misplaced, or misunderstood, they become obstacles to all three of the educational goals mentioned above.

On the third day of school, as an in-class assignment my sophomore classes read Pope Francis’s address to Italian students and educators. I asked my students to compare their experience of school to the Pope’s. To my surprise, what sparked the most controversy was the Pope’s comments regarding his elementary school teacher. Many of the fourteen and fifteen-year-olds in my classes described their relationships with parents, counselors, and teachers as filled with agonizing pressure resulting in high anxiety surrounding grades and high achievement. The most vocal students claim that the adults in their lives give value to high school only inasmuch as it is a means to getting into the right college. One student complained of being sleep deprived because of the amount of homework she had in her honors and AP classes, even though it was only the first week of school. When I asked why she was taking so many advanced classes, she said that her stepfather told her that getting into a highly selective college (an Ivy or Stanford) opened doors for you in life. The matter-of-fact tone of her response betrayed the schizophrenia that many of our students live. While they complain about the pressure they feel at school, they are convinced that success is what matters most in life.

In each of my four sophomore classes, students launched into desperate laments about the pressure to earn good grades and to take honors courses and AP exams, so they can get into their college of choice—citing this as the number one reason they dreaded school, and accusing teachers of being singleminded in their focus on “covering content” and teaching to tests. While a few students called for a rebellion against the pressure, none defended school as a place where learning happened. Some went as far as to say that the extreme focus on grades and pressure to do well on tests was actually antithetical to real, lasting learning, even when they did earn the highest marks on tests and get good grades. According to the most vocal students during these discussions, the grades they receive have no correlation to actual learning, and they blame this madness on the adults that are behind and within schools, as well as their parents who pressure them to succeed. At the same time they buy into the culture. Two students in separate class sections talked about the fact that they weren’t being taught basic life skills (some of the skills mentioned were cooking, changing a tire, and doing taxes) but they did spend hours taking practice AP exams and loads of money on test prep classes for material they would “forget as soon as the exam was over.” Students admitted they had no interest in the AP subject material, but were taking the courses because they needed as many AP classes as possible on their transcripts, and the weighted grades helped their GPA’s.

Educational assessment has been a part of teacher training programs and an area of educational research for decades. However, since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, certain kinds of educational assessments have become familiar to the American public because of controversy surrounding the effectiveness of NCLB. The legislation tied federal money to high scores on standardized tests in public schools. A few years after the bill took effect, “high stakes testing” and “teaching to the test” came to signify the latest failed attempt to respond to the educational crisis. Teachers, parents, and students complained of scripted curriculum designed to make students perform well on standardized tests, creating a culture in the schools that paradoxically stunted teacher creativity and student learning. Nonetheless, assessment continues to be a primary focus in education, and teacher professional development because “data driven” instruction lends a kind of pseudo-scientific legitimacy to the field. Likewise, standardized tests continue to be used by schools in order to collect longitudinal data on student learning, and the test-driven AP curriculum, as well as the SAT and ACT, stand as gateways in the increasingly competitive college admissions process.

Educational assessment experts like Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue, developers of the Understanding by Design framework, a popular curriculum development method, will point out that assessment in schools should be much broader than standardized tests and is necessary at all stages of teaching.

Assessment is a term used to describe a broad array of measurements used in schools, from familiar multiple choice, end-of-chapter tests, to science labs and yearly standardized tests. Standardized tests are assessments developed by private testing companies, both non-profit and for-profit, and purchased by schools and school districts to measure a student’s knowledge of certain educational content and skills. These tests can then be normed against a national or local average, or taken year after year to collect longitudinal date in order to measure how much a student has learned over a period of years. Data from these test are used by schools for a variety of purposes, from admissions tool, to course placement indicator, to income provider, (for example in the case of certain state tests like the New York Regents exam, where schools receive a certain amount of money for each student who takes the exam.) The use of the terms “formative assessment” and “summative assessment” indicate how data from a given assessment will be used. If the results of a test or assessment are used to form curriculum or modify teaching, then the assessment is considered a formative assessment. If the results of an assessment are used to give a final score or grade indicating a students’ acquisition of certain content or skills, then it is summative. End-of-the-year grades, SAT test scores, and final exams are examples of summative assessments. An assessment can be formative or summative, or both. For example, a teacher may give a student a semester grade based on a final exam score, and then review the final exam to pinpoint areas of student weakness and modify the curriculum for the second semester in order to focus on those areas.

What school administrations do with the large amounts of standardized test data they collect from their students annually depends on the goals of the particular school or district. Some will increase courses in a target area or modify curriculum to pinpoint a certain area of need. Some schools do little or nothing with the data, outside of reporting it back to parents, or noting it in their accreditation process reports.

The more important question has to do with the way assessments are used by those who spend the most time with students: classroom teachers. What kinds of assessments are used? Are they mainly traditional tests that aim at testing a student’s acquisition of specific content area through multiple-choice questions (summative assessment)? Are teachers willing to change their curriculum based on what they find out about what their students have learned (formative assessment)? Does assessment help students to learn better, and is it the most important aspect of successful teaching?

According to the rationale of Wiggins and McTigue’s UbD method, teachers backward design their curriculum, starting with learning goals. They first ask what they are going to assess, what the evidence is for the goals they have in mind, then they design the “learning activities” backward from the assessments. All along the way, the curriculum should include “authentic assessments,” meaning assessments that go beyond the traditional paper and pencil, fill-in-the blank, multiple-choice tests. An authentic assessment in an English class might be writing a movie review, or conducting an interview. In a science class it might include original scientific research or experiments, or writing lab reports based on industry standards. In math, it might be tracking a plane’s flight pattern in mathematical terms, or using statistical data to create economic models. The argument is that more “authentic work,” like one might see in a workplace, is needed in the classroom to prepare students for the “real world,” and to increase their critical thinking skills. A similar rationale is behind the design of the Common Core Standards, which most states have adopted. Common Core standards encourage skills-based teaching and learning, and utilitarian values, versus a more traditional, content-driven curriculum. The CCS also provide nation wide standards upon which the testing companies can develop their tests.

Before my work as a curriculum director, I taught for eight years without having received any formation in educational assessment. Like most of my colleagues, I relied on my intuition, on the memory of my own experience as a high school student, and on resources supplied by textbook companies in order to create my tests.

Now, after five years, I am back in the classroom teaching full-time and I believe my teaching has benefitted from what I have learned about assessment. If anything, I have become more “formative” in the use of my assessments. I use diagnostic tests to assess what my students have actually learned, and I adjust my curriculum accordingly. For example, I assign a five paragraph essay on the first day of class, assess the strengths and weaknesses of a students’ writing, and then give focused instruction where needed, for as long as needed. I may require a student to work on the same skill an entire semester until she has mastered it. My focus has shifted from covering a certain amount of content to observing what my students have learned, trying to meet them where they are, and supporting them in taking the next step. “Authentic assessments” are now more common in my classroom than the more traditional tests I used during my earlier years as a teacher, and none of my assessments are multiple choice. I think these changes to my teaching methods have helped my students learn better and think more deeply. In this sense, a better understanding of assessments has helped me become less attached to my ideas and more attached to the reality of my students.

In my experience, well-prepared formative assessments help gauge what students really know, and therefore can give teachers important insight into how to help their students learn. Likewise, authentic assessments can elicit deeper thinking from students than traditional tests. Test data can also provide educators with some informative feedback when faced with curriculum decisions.

On the day I questioned some of my students about how they felt regarding school, before the bell rang, I asked them to tell me what they believe is the most effective way to help them learn. The majority of students in all of my classes mentioned one factor: the teacher. At bottom, my students’ responses were not so distant from what Pope Francis had said: “When teachers are passionate about their subjects and they know what they are talking about, I learn.” “When a teacher can relate to me and I can relate to him, I learn.” “When teachers are patient with us, we learn.” “When a teacher helps us to see how what we are studying has to do with the real world, we learn.” “When teachers are happy to be teaching us, we learn.” Although a good teacher should know how to create good assessments and prepare a student to function in the world, according to my students, tests are just not that important; the teacher’s humanity, on the other hand, is essential.