Which school do you want to support?
Tests (more formally known as assessments) have become an important part of the school experience in America. Tests come in two main flavors. It's worth understanding the difference.
Teachers use formative assessments to check whether students understand material they have been taught. These tests are generally short, focused, and used to guide instruction. (“OK, students, it looks like some of you are fuzzy on the difference between a simile and a metaphor. What’s the difference… Andre?”)
Traditionally, teachers created these tests themselves. Here's the problem: writing good test questions is hard. Some teachers are really good at it, but as instructional materials have become more tightly aligned to standards, it has made sense for publishers to include unit tests as part of their content. Bubble-test versions of these assessments can speed up scoring and give teachers rapid feedback. These assessments can also help teachers compare the effectiveness of their lessons, so that they can work together to improve.
Testing jargon: "Formative" assessments are like quizzes. Usually short, and used during a course to see if you're on on track. "Summative" assessments are like final exams that happen after the course is done to render a grade.
Supporters view these tests as a key to improving schools. They create clarity about standards in core academic areas. They strip away excuses, and provide focus to faculty discussions about effective instruction. Many outstanding schools make strong and consistent use of formative assessment data at all levels, from teacher to principal to district. These schools use assessment data to direct attention and resources to help specific students.
No one would claim that formative assessment is unnecessary. Some argue, however, that the job of designing and delivering formative assessments belongs with the teacher, not the district or publisher. Others argue that test design is an area of expertise distinct from teaching, and that at a minimum it is a time-consuming task.
Summative assessments are end-of-course or end-of-year tests. All of the big standardized tests (CAASPP, SAT, TOEFFL, GED, Achievement, AP, NAEP, PISA and more) are summative. These tests permit comparisons between schools, teachers, programs and the like. They are also rather broadly disliked. Teachers do not get much useful feedback from the big annual standardized tests, which tend to deliver scores late and without much detail. Critics of testing aren't necessarily anti-test. Many simply argue that summative standardized testing takes up too much time for too little practical benefit.
Although there is a great deal of emphasis on summative tests (after all, they count, right?) students and teachers spend more of their time on formative work. It's hard work to write good assessments, and publishers have increasingly found schools and districts eager buyers of formative assessment tools for classroom use. Overall spending on formative (classroom) assessments exceeds spending on state tests, according to Simba Information, a consultancy.
The meaning of formative and summative tests are blending slightly through the use of technology-assisted adaptive assessments such as the CAASPP, California's main state test. In the same way that games adapt to challenge the skills of the player, tests like this one adjust to reflect the boundaries of a student's readiness, avoiding questions that are either way too easy or way too hard. Some enthusiastic supporters of adaptive testing compare summative testing with old-time grocery stores that had to close in order to take inventory.
If you feel as though your school is spending too much time and energy on tests, you might want to consider working with your principal or PTA leadership to gather some data. It is easier to have a productive conversation about the issue with facts in hand. Some have found it helpful to estimate the dollar value of time spent on testing. In California the average cost of student time is roughly $11 per student-hour.
In business, there is a saying that “what gets measured gets managed.” In education, the equivalent is “what gets tested gets taught.” Over time, tested subjects such as math and English have received more focus than those that are less often measured. The tendency to spend more energy, time, and resources on tested subjects can result in a phenomenon called “narrowing the curriculum.”
One response to this narrowing has been to create standards in other subject areas, as the later lessons in this chapter describe. Standardized assessments exist for Science and history/social studies. The standards for physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career-technical education may guide instruction but they get much less attention from state leaders or the public. To provide comparable structure for other subjects and skills, some proponents of a well-rounded education suggest standards should be adopted and tested for “life skill” learning such as time management, self-control, teamwork, and personal finance.
For additional discussion of the use of tests, see the Success chapter of Ed100. In the next lesson, we delve into the still-new world of technology in education.
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