31 July 2017

Why Assessment?

Folio Corporation LogoMost departments or ministries of education state the purposes of assessment. I'm particularly fond of New Zealand's statement:

The primary purpose of assessment is to improve students’ learning and teachers’ teaching as both respond to the information it provides. Assessment for learning is an ongoing process that arises out of the interaction between teaching and learning.

I like this because it captures the feedback process and acknowledges that both students and educators should respond to that feedback. It also encompasses the various goals of assessment — to inform individual student learning, to measure the effectiveness of the learning system, and to serve as evidence of student skills.

Today I'm writing about the purposes of assessment and the value of standardized assessment.

Inform Individual Student Learning

The most important use of assessment is to improve individual learning. When used properly, assessments improve individual learning in three ways. 1) Exercising and demonstrating skills reinforces student understanding and helps retention. 2) Student attention to the assessment results can increase motivation and direct their choice of learning activities. 3) Educator attention to assessment results can direct their assignment of learning activities or inform interventions.

All of these involve educational feedback loops. However these impacts are only achieved if the right assessment is used for the right purpose. For example, many high-stakes assessments were developed primarily to comply with regulations, such as The No Child Left Behind Act (replaced by ESSA). The reports required by these regulations focus on the percentage of students at each institution that achieve standards for grade-level competency. A test focused on that type of report centers on the threshold of competency. It can indicate with great reliability whether a student is above or below the threshold but may not be reliable for other insight. Such a threshold test is a poor choice for informing learning activities, diagnosing areas of weakness, or measuring growth.

More advanced tests include questions at a variety of skill levels centered on the expected competency level. These tests indicate the student's competency on a continuous scale. Accordingly, they can indicate how far ahead or behind the student is, not just whether they are above or below a certain threshold. By comparing scores from successive tests, you can measure student growth over a period of time. Advanced tests include questions designed to get measure greater depths of knowledge. Such tests offer more reliable detail about student skills in specific areas.

One objection to advanced tests is that it takes more questions and more time to measure skills at this level of detail. The use of computer adaptive testing can shorten the test while maintaining reliability.

Measure the Effectiveness of the Learning System

When standardized assessments are used to measure the effectiveness of the learning system, individual student results are aggregated to indicate the fraction that are achieving competency levels. Typically results are compared with previous years to see if schools are improving. This Delaware Press Release is a typical example of the public statements made each year.

Assessments like these are based on the premise that if you measure performance and report on it, then performance will improve. Unfortunately, education has proven to be a stubborn counter example of this premise. Sixteen years after the No Child Left Behind act mandated standardized testing and established remedies for underperforming schools there has been limited progress. This leads some to call for abandonment of standardized assessment altogether. But if we don't measure performance, we will never know if we are succeeding.

These are our contemporary challenges: discovering the factors under that contribute to better learning and investing the resources needed to improve those factors. Continuing to measure performance will support gathering evidence of principles of effective teaching and learning.

Less frequently applied but equal in importance is using assessments to evaluate parts of the learning system. For example, assessment data can be used to compare different curricula or textbooks, for continuous improvement of online learning systems, and to evaluate the effectiveness of professional development programs.

Provide Evidence of Student Achievement

Since 1905, the primary measure of student achievement in the U.S. has been the Carnegie Unit. This measure uses the time a student spends in the classroom as proxy for how much they have learned. A century later, in 2005, New Hampshire began converting to a competency-based system where student skill is measured directly rather than by proxy. Other states have programs that allow competency measures as an alternative to seat time. Such measures depend on high quality assessments that are aligned to specific and relevant standards of achievement.

Standardized and High Quality Assessment

It has become common, in recent years, to complain about achievement standards and the associated standardized assessments. A typical protest might be, "My child is not standardized." To be sure, our goal should not be to achieve sameness among children and this is not the purpose of achievement standards. Rather, we recognize that people need to achieve a basic competency level in language arts and mathematics in order to function and achieve in our society. The standards are intended to reflect that basic competency with the hope that students and educators will build a wide variety of skill and achievement on that core foundation.

All of these uses — informing learning activities, measuring program effectiveness, and providing evidence of achievement — depend on the quality of the assessment. An assessment will provide poor guidance if it is sensitive to the wrong factors, is unreliable, or is tuned to the wrong skill level. I've written before that personalized learning is currently the most promising approach to improving learning. Choosing high quality assessments to inform personalization is essential to the success of such programs.

That should be our demand — that states, districts, and schools give us evidence of the quality of the assessments they use.

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