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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Ending Hit-and-Run Testing: ETS Sets Out to Revolutionize Assessment

The venerable test-making organization hopes to make more meaningful measurements of student achievement.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Related Tags: Assessment,All Grades

Strange as it might sound, a big push to reinvent standardized tests is coming from a major standardized-testing company, ETS.

Click to enlarge picture

This ETS test item taps math skills by asking students to properly resize digital photos.

Credit: Reprinted by permission of Educational Testing Service, the copyright owner. No endorsement of this Web site by Educational Testing Service should be inferred.

The Princeton, New Jersey, nonprofit organization, which produces the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, among others, is two years into a five- to ten-year project to create an accountability test that -- unlike the tests states use today -- measures complex, real-world skills and helps teachers improve instruction.

"What we are trying to do is come up with tests that not only measure discrete skills but also measure their integration," says ETS distinguished scientist Randy Bennett, "tests that exemplify not only the kinds of things that students must know and be able to do to succeed in the twenty-first-century world but also the kinds of things that teachers want to teach."

The ETS vision is to create a far longer assessment than today's quick-hit exams, then break that assessment up into many parts that could be done in short sessions over the course of a whole school year. The added time would allow test makers to use open-ended tasks that call on multiple skills, and place the tasks in meaningful contexts. For example, one task being developed calls on students to show their knowledge of mathematical proportion by resizing digital photos and explaining why certain sizes will or won't work. If test makers get it right, Bennett says, the exam should be a learning experience in and of itself, not an endgame.

Click to enlarge picture

This ETS test item taps math skills by asking students to properly resize digital photos.

Credit: Reprinted by permission of Educational Testing Service, the copyright owner. No endorsement of this Web site by Educational Testing Service should be inferred.

Amassing test results over time, rather than at a single sitting, would prevent fleeting disturbances such as an argument or a poorly air-conditioned room from skewing kids' final scores. It also would provide teachers with feedback on student progress throughout the year -- when they can actually use it -- giving a richer, more reliable picture of student skills.

The hope is that what ETS calls the Cognitively-Based Assessment Of, For, and As Learning, or something like it, could ultimately replace the worn-out exams now being used to satisfy the No Child Left Behind Act. It's an uphill battle it will take time, money, political will, and probably more advanced artificial intelligence systems to score written answers without breaking the bank.

But, as Bennett says, "I haven't heard anybody say, 'Don't try.'"

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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