Purpose and Assessments

Friday, February 8, 2013 -- Shane Dennison

What purpose is being served by the way we design assessments as individual educators, states, and national entities? Is it to earn a higher ranking in math and science among the world’s countries? Or is it to increase teacher and administrator accountability? Are performance scores meant to be utilized as a means to increase national or state funding for a school or district? Is it meant to serve as an indicator of student success beyond high school?

It appears that in regard to standardized testing it is all of these and then some. Of course the main purpose should always be to increase student achievement.  And we do hear just that in many sound bites by politicians and educators alike. Are today’s standardized assessments serving that purpose? Many would argue they are absolutely not.

Even as you read this post, updated assessments are being created  to correlate with the Common Core standards. As these assessments are developed, I hope that a “universal purpose” is mapped out and kept in mind. Societal expectations, like graduating high school, learning a trade or attending college, will and should play a significant part in the creation and purpose of these assessments. We need to move beyond only expecting “rote memorization” and help students develop holistic grasps on relationships and context within content they are learning each day. Another key purpose to consider is assessments need to serve as positive motivators for students.  They need to be seen as useful and causal necessities to reach their life-long goals. Thinking about assessment from the perspective of purpose rather than method puts the emphasis on the intended end result (Manitoba Education, 2006).

And with a clear purpose in mind, we need to ensure parents and students are an interactive part of the assessment process. At the same time, will students and parents understand the value and purpose in the high stakes and low stakes assessments they will be part of?

Though the level of assessment feedback is not yet known, it is promising to read that the coming Common Core assessments will provide teachers detailed feedback they can use throughout the school year. This more frequent, detailed feedback can enable teachers to help improve student achievement versus just an overview of their students results at the end of the school year when there is no time to address needs. Such a practice could further define a universal purpose to classroom teachers on a weekly basis. Instead of feeling the necessity to just “teach to the test” they could be provided timely feedback from practice assessments that could help them address varying students strengths and weaknesses. This shift allows teachers to work with students not only in time to do better on the actual test, but to help students improve their learning deficiencies, in general, around the power standards that educators helped create when making the Common Core standards.

The opportunity is there with the transition to Common Core assessments for all educators involved to decide upon and clarify the purpose of these assessments as they prepare the methods for them.