A Florida high school student wrote to Diane Ravitch that her school’s computer lab is being used for taking standardized tests for 124 out of 180 days in the school year.

Why all this test madness in schools?
Somewhere along the way, as is human nature, the tests shifted from being a way to measure something important, to the ends in themselves.

Few argue that the millions of hours and millions of dollars devoted to preparing for and taking tests inside and outside of school is really improving our children’s learning. But no one seems to have figured out a way to move beyond the tyranny of the bubble test bubble.

Until now.

The tests we choose will determine the kinds of educational outcomes we have. If we want to shift our purpose, the answer lies in an entirely different approach to testing: one that uses more information, not less. The way forward is suggested in educational theory, which speaks of “summative” and “formative” assessment.

Summative assessments are the kinds of tests we have far too many of right now. They are the same for every student. They are simply the bar you must clear to determine whether you get to move up or not. They are Procrustean: students who are far smarter and better prepared than the norm aren’t depicted adequately by their scores, and neither are students who are too far behind, are dyslexic, get nervous, have an undiagnosed learning disability, need glasses, arrived in the country four months ago, or didn’t get breakfast this morning. Students learn almost nothing from taking a summative assessment except that they are good enough or not good enough.

Formative assessments are different. They are given “for” the student not “to” the student. They are designed to help the student as well as the authority figures giving the tests. Diagnostic assessments, a type of formative assessment given before you start learning, create a picture of individual strengths and weaknesses: a map of what to do next. Formative assessments provide ongoing feedback that directs the course of learning. They work like the leaderboards and dashboards on video games: A social, fun, ongoing competition that tells you and others who you are, what you are good at, and how you are doing right now. Since formative assessments are ongoing, they are inherently more fluid. They always offer the chance to try again and do better next time, and there is a built-in assumption that you will have better days and worse days: failure is part of the process. But they are also more rich. They tell you the story of the semester and the school year and the student herself, not of six hours on one Saturday morning.

Until now, formative assessments have been too unwieldy to inform big decisions in education. But for the first time in the history of education, technologies being developed and tested right now provide the means to continuously collect and usefully read the records that students leave of their learning every day, whether they are engaged in traditional subjects, project-based collaborations, experiential learning, or anything else. This means we no longer need to spend millions of dollars and millions of hours pushing students toward artificial summative test experiences.

Changing the tests changes everything, because the test is how we know how we are doing.

I’m in this weird space right now where it seems like there’s a lot of public conversations going on around topics I’ve been immersed in for years, like student loan debt, college access and quality, and educational innovation. I’m trying to stay fresh by moving into the world of K-12 but of course I also want to be part of these conversations, without feeling like I’m repeating myself.

I’ve also been working a ton, because I’ve finally been released to freelance on education topics and at the same time shifted to contributing a lot more to Fast Company’s website. Here’s my cover story on charter schools in the Village Voice. Here’s two pieces in the American Prospect on higher education aid and student loans. Here’s an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed. Here’s my last ten pieces in Fast Company. All of that in the last month. And I have three feature stories going on right now. Whew.

But I have something to say about MOOCs. Specifically about the quality of pedagogy in MOOCs as offered by platforms like Coursera and Udacity and edX. David Wiley, who has taught me a lot of stuff, said this at least five years ago, actually. MOOCs are content. Content is infrastructure. Infrastructure is just the first step.

MOOCs are content = a MOOC is not a course. A sage-on-stage lecture-based course is not particularly innovative, I know. But take those same lectures, chop them up into short segments, make them fastforwardable, pausable, allow people to add comments, ask a question in the forums, start and stop any time they want, work examples in realtime alongside the instructor, go to Wikipedia to look something up–

–you have changed the fundamental nature of the experience. The power relationship is different. The talking head is shrunk to the size of a thumbnail. She speaks at the whim of the student. And her truth is represented as one among many hundreds of options, all of which are accessible for free.

Content is infrastructure = If you look at it this way, a MOOC is really more like a glorified (really glorified) textbook. It’s not an end-to-end solution. It’s the basis of an experience that people have individually and collectively. Interaction with other people around the ideas is always going to be the important part of what happens to people when they are engaged with any kind of educational content.

Infrastructure is just the first step = People give MOOCs too much credit and too much blame. Obviously there are better and worse ways to design them. But more important to look at the system they’re a part of.

What’s the most important thing about MOOCs? The people who are engaging in them. The numbers — the volume– the scale–the impact. This is what blows peoples’ minds. It’s not what is in the MOOC, it is who is in the MOOC that matters. It’s the way that they engage with each other and the ideas. And it’s what they do with it next.