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.

2 Responses to “Change the Test, Change the Stakes”

  1. Will Boggs says:

    Standarized Tests have become a ridiculous part of the school landscape. These tests do little to actually prove if the student is actually learning a real skill. Unfortunately these schools are being held up to these standards based on a test. I myself am a part-time music teacher and I find far more value with a skilled test of what the child “actually did” rather than what they write on a piece of paper.

  2. Parul Singh says:

    As an observer of education as well as student of education reform, I think this is totally insightful and true. “Formative assessment” has been appropriated by people that don’t understand it very well. If done right, it could put the US in the top five in the world (Robert Marzano’s quote, not mine.) I wish more people understood the point you are making here.

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