October 19, 2009

Our Children Isn't Learning: The Problem with Assessment

Almost eight years into No Child Left Behind, it would be difficult to find an American child who has not been tested. Repeatedly. Again and again. To death. The rationale for the high-stakes testing regime was to improve student performance. But scores have improved little or not at all. To paraphrase the architect of NCLB, our children isn’t learning.

The sad thing is that assessment actually CAN improve learning, but not the kind of testing mandated by Congress. Regular progress checks that provide immediate, meaningful, and consistent feedback has been shown in a meta-study of over 75 research papers from around the world to improve student performance by .5 to 1.0 standard deviations (Black and Wiliam, 1998). Sadly, this type of assessment is rarely practiced, having been elbowed out by a wide but shallow curriculum designed to help students attain higher test scores.

Here at CASLS, we developed a summative assessment (STAMP) for the purpose of improving language instruction. By providing affordable, widely available assessment with rich reporting structures, we hoped to encourage teachers to focus on student performance outcomes. We are happy to report that this is often the case. But that "teachable moment" only occurs once a year and, while STAMP provides meaningful feedback to teachers, it does not constitute the "immediate, meaningful, and consistent" feedback to learners that Black and Wiliam found so helpful. Are we part of the solution or part of the problem?

Now, we are working on a formative assessment tool, LinguaFolio Online, that will let learners track and document their progress. With LinguaFolio Online, language teachers will be able to practice what Rick Stiggins has called Balanced Assessment: using a variety of formative and summative measures to improve, as well as document, learning.

What would a classroom look like if students set their own goals and decided for themselves what kinds of evidence would prove they had met that goal? Self-directed learning is universally praised as a good thing. But would it lead to chaos? Are you, as a teacher, willing to give up control of setting goals? Are you willing to trade in your role as judge, jury, and executioner to be a coach?

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