Throughout the ongoing debate around Rhode Island’s new high-stakes testing graduation requirement, folks in our state have been hearing a lot of talk about standards and expectations.
This controversy has not, however, sparked a real conversation about the fundamental issue here, which can be boiled down to this question: what is authentic assessment? What does it look like and how can we create systems to support its use and – perhaps most important of all – what are its goals?
To see an example of true, authentic assessment, I urge you to watch “Seeing the Learning,” the 9th segment in a 10-part series of short, beautifully-shot films about the Mission Hill School in Boston, a shining example of what a public school can be.
At Mission Hill, staff hold fast to the original definition of “assessment,” which comes from the Latin, “to sit beside.” Students at Mission Hill take the required standardized tests, but teachers there understand that the best way to see if a student has grasped a lesson is through direct engagement and discussion; the best way to raise expectations for a child is to spark their curiosity and love of learning; and the most important goal of assessment is to better understand individual students so as to improve support, teaching and learning for them.
The Mission Hill School uses a similar assessment system as that used by the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a network of 28 public schools in New York that rely on practitioner-designed and student-focused assessment tasks rather than high-stakes testing. The Consortium schools – which have a higher population of students living at the poverty level, a higher percentage of ELL students, and a higher percentage of students entering school behind pace than regular New York City public schools – have remarkably better student outcomes than the average NYC school, including a dropout rate, at 5.3%, that is half that of the NYC average, and a graduation rate of special needs students (50%) that is double that of the NYC average. These superior results continue after high school, with eighty-five percent of Consortium graduates attending colleges rated competitive or better. And Consortium students’ college persistence to second year at 4-year colleges is 18.6% higher than the national average, while for 2-year colleges, persistence is 30.4% higher.
All this is to say that there are alternatives to standardized testing, and when they’re implemented well, these alternatives are actually far more effective than our current regime of high-stakes testing.
Which brings us back to Rhode Island. At the heart of the campaign against the NECAP graduation requirement that has been waged by parents, teachers and the youth group I work with, the Providence Student Union, is a belief that a simple standardized test gives us a pretty limited amount of data about students. This data can be valuable in helping us to make certain decisions (although the info becomes more distorted and less valuable as higher stakes are attached to the tests). But despite the fact that these tests cost millions of taxpayer dollars to develop and countless hours of lost teaching and learning time to administer, the data they provide is far from the whole picture, and I would argue that the goals you can achieve from these kinds of assessments are not the goals we should be devoting so much of our collective time, energy and resources towards. If you want to get detailed information about a student to better support him or her, a standardized test is not your best bet. If you want to engage students in an assessment they find challenging and that stretches them to be the best they can be, a standardized test is not your best bet. If you want to better understand how students respond and react in real-life situations, a standardized test is not your best bet.
In other words, if you want an authentic assessment, you can’t take the easy road. Assessment is important, and we should treat it as such. That means not phoning it in. That means doing it right. That means sitting beside our children. By all accounts, it will be worth it.