How do we measure student progress? How do we measure effective teaching? How do we calculate a student’s commitment to Jewish values? How do we grade davening or positive attitudes toward Judaism? How accurate are report card grades? Do they measure ability to think and reason or just memorization skills?
There is currently a widespread backlash against standardized tests. Recently, when New Jersey administered new state exams based on the Common Core expectations adopted by most states, thousands of students opted not to take them. Regardless of the issues specific to Common Core, how accurate a barometer it is, how well it was vetted, etc., there is still a need to find valid ways to hold schools, teachers, and students accountable.
For decades, educational policy dictated more and more standardized tests as a way to establish common benchmarks of achievement and to hold teachers and schools responsible for student progress. Recently, however, there has been a seismic shift in attitudes and public opinion resulting in a revolt against standardized testing. Parents and advocates for children have been successfully lobbying to cut back and/or eliminate standardized tests.
Discussion about cutting back on these requirements comes at a time of growing concern about the number of tests kids take and the time they spend taking them. Missing from this debate, however, is a sense of what could replace annual tests. What can schools do to monitor learning and ensure equity and accountability if they didn’t have to test every child every year?
Here are some possible suggestions. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, they could all happen at the same time, as different schools make different decisions.
1) Sampling. A simple approach. The same tests, just fewer of them. Accountability could be achieved by administering traditional standardized tests to a statistically representative sampling of students, rather than to every student every year. That’s how the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, works. It’s one of the longest-running and most trusted tests in the US education arsenal. It’s given to a different sample of students each year, in grades 4, 8, and 12. PISA, the widely respected international test, is given to a sample of students as well.
2) Stealth assessment. Similar math and reading data, but collected differently. The major textbook publishers, plus companies like Dreambox, Scholastic, and the nonprofit Khan Academy, all sell software for students to practice math and English. These programs register every single answer a student gives.
The companies that develop this software argue that it presents the opportunity to eliminate the time, cost, and anxiety of “stop and test” in favor of passively collecting data on students’ knowledge over a semester, year, or entire school career. Valerie Shute, a professor at Florida State University and former principal research scientist at ETS, coined the term “stealth assessment” to describe this approach.
Stealth assessment doesn’t just show which skills a student has mastered at a given moment. The pattern of answers potentially offers insights into how quickly students learn, how diligent they are and other big-picture factors.
Invisible, integrated assessment, is the future. We can monitor students’ learning day to day in a digital scenario. Ultimately, if we’re successful, the need for, and the activity of, stopping and testing will go away in many cases.
Applying this approach using scientific methods has never been done, in part because the products are still new. It would probably require a large outlay in terms of software, professional training, and computer equipment—and would result in a corresponding windfall for the software companies.
3) Multiple measures. Incorporate more, and different, kinds of data on student progress and school performance into accountability measures. Statewide longitudinal data systems now track public school students in most states from pre-K all the way through high school. That means accountability measures and interventions don’t have to depend on the outcome of just one test. They could take a big-data approach, combining information from a number of different sources—graduation rates, discipline outcomes, demographic information, teacher-created assessments and, eventually, workforce outcomes. This information, in turn, could be used to gauge the performance of students, schools, and teachers over time.
4) Social and emotional skills surveys. Research shows that at least half of long-term chances of success are determined by nonacademic qualities like grit, perseverance, and curiosity. Including social and emotional measures can help define a high-quality school. As one component of a multiple-measures system, all schools could be held accountable for cultivating this half of the picture.
The Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland survey both students and teachers on social and emotional factors and use the results to guide internal decision making. The district uses the Gallup student poll, a 20-question survey that seeks to measure levels of hope, engagement, and well-being. “Engagement” is basically a measure of how excited students are to be in the building. Last year, 875,000 students took the Gallup poll nationwide, in grades 5–12. According to one study, student hope scores on this poll do a better job of predicting college persistence and GPA than do high school GPA, SATs, or ACT scores.
5) Game-based assessments.
Video-game-like assessments, such as those created by GlassLab and the AAA lab at Stanford, are designed to get at higher-order thinking skills. These games are designed to test things like systems thinking or the ability to take feedback—measures that traditional tests don’t get at.
6) Performance or portfolio-based assessments.
Schools around the country are incorporating direct demonstrations of student learning into their assessment programs. These include projects, individual and group presentations, reports and papers, and portfolios of work collected over time. The New York Performance Standards Consortium consists of 28 schools, grades 6–12 throughout New York State, that rely on these teacher-created assessments to the exclusion of standardized tests. These public schools tend to show higher graduation rates and better college-retention rates, while serving a population similar to that of other urban schools.
Scotland is a place where you can see many of the above approaches in action. Unlike the rest of the UK, it has no specifically government-mandated school tests. Schools do administer a sampling survey of math and literacy, and there is a series of high-school-exit/college-entrance exams that are high stakes for students. But national education policy emphasizes a wide range of approaches to assessment, including presentations, performances, and reports. (http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/learningandteaching/assessment/supportmaterials/nar/assessmentmaterials/index.asp)
The aforementioned are designed to measure higher-order skills like creativity, students’ well-being, and technological literacy as well as traditional academics. Schools and teachers have a lot of control over the methods of evaluation.
We also suggest adoption of these NJEA recommendations:
Passing a legislated “Bill of Rights” that provides full transparency on the frequency, costs, and impact of high-stakes standardized testing
Limiting the number of hours spent on standardized testing, test preparation, and test drilling
Requiring testing companies to report their profits and their political contributions
Giving parents the right to opt-out of standardized tests
There are over 500,000 Google results to a search for alternatives to standardized testing. It is time for our day schools to consider a more holistic approach to this issue, thus, in concert, perhaps developing an approach that will serve as a model for other communities.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He is the founder of the Sinai School and is currently a consultant to schools, non-profit organizations, The International March of The Living, and serves as Executive Secretary of The Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholarship Fund. He can be reached at [email protected]
By Wallace Greene