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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Rethinking Assessment

The Borobudur Temple is a ninth century temple built in the architectural style of the Gupta Empire which flourished in India from approximately 320 to 550 CE.

With few exceptions, all the things our children are using to connect and learn outside the classroom -- social media, cell phones, Internet connections -- are banned inside classrooms. In my kids' case (and they have more access than many), school is the only place in their lives where they can't use the technology they carry around in their pockets and backpacks to answer questions.

The only place. Why is that?

Those of us who have shifted our learning lives to online networks and communities know the potential power that resides there. Education author Jay Cross says, "Knowledge is moving from the individual to the individual and his contacts." That couldn't be truer in this abundantly networked world. It's not what I know, it's what we know. And my reality is that I would suddenly become much dumber if you told me I had to disconnect when seeking answers or solving problems.

This Will Be on the Test

Remaking assessment starts with this: stop asking questions on tests that can be answered by a Google search. Or, if you have to ask them, let kids use their technology to answer them. More often than not, we ask questions that can be easily answered by technology. That is unfortunate.

Take a quick look at any of the state standardized tests for graduation, and you'll see more of those than you can imagine.

For instance, from the New York State Regents global history and geography test:

"Which geographic feature impacted the development of the Gupta Empire?"

No lie, this was a question every potential graduate in New York State was supposed to answer in 2011. I'm not sure about you, but I'd never even heard of the Gupta Empire.

The answer choices were: a) island location; b) volcanoes; c) monsoons; and d) permafrost.

Let's be serious for a second. Can you think of any reason why this little tidbit would be important for your son or daughter to have stored away in his or her brain, aside from needing it for the test? And if I announced that I had a free iPad for the first person who emailed me the correct answer, what would you do right now?

I don't even have to answer that. 
These are the questions we ask when we're operating as if information were scarce. Our tests are loaded with questions whose answers almost everyone is guaranteed to forget as soon as the test is over. I'm not saying there might not be some profound learning we can take away from the story of the Gupta Empire (which was, according to Wikipedia, an Indian dynasty that was the model for classical civilization). But I am saying that we don't take anything away from answering a question like that, except for wondering whether we got it right or wrong. (The correct answer for the question above, by the way, is c) monsoons.)

The effects of assessments like these have implications far beyond their impact on our students. The problems with standardized tests are summed up quite well by Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon:

By imposing upon schools and teachers unrealistic, meaningless, and arbitrary goals, high-stakes testing has corrupted the spirit of American education, intoxicated the education environment, and demoralized educators. By forcing schools and teachers to teach to the test, it has narrowed the educational experiences of millions of children and thus deprived our children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, of a real education. It has wasted valuable, precious, and dwindling public funds that could have been put into educating rather than testing our children. It has generated unnecessary fear, anxiety, and loss of confidence in our children. It has distracted us from addressing the real challenges facing education today: poverty, globalization, and technological changes. It has taken away the opportunities and resources for exploring innovations that may lead to true improvements in education. But most importantly, it has eroded the traditional strengths of American education that have made America the world's center of innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, and democracy.

Performance-Based Assessments

Instead, let's make sure that at least some of the questions we ask our students on assessments require them to tap into the vast storehouses of information that reside online as well as the networks of people who can help them sort out the answers. For instance, what if we asked (and only if it were worth asking), "In what ways have the inventions and works of the Gupta Empire had an influence on our modern culture?" That's a bit different from making a choice from a list. It would require an ability to think critically about the world. And it would be most complete if it also tested for a student's ability to access the resources and experts now available online.

In other words, let's scrap open-book tests, zoom past open-phone tests asking Googleable questions, and advance to open-network tests that measure not just how well kids answer a question, but also how literate they are at discerning good information from bad and tapping into the experts and networks that can inform those answers. This is how they'll take the real-life information and knowledge tests that come their way, and it would tell us much more about our children's preparedness for a world of data abundance.

Let’s also shift our assessments of students' mastery to ones that examine mastery in action. Performance-based assessments, where students actually have to do something with what they know, tell us volumes more about their readiness for life than bubble sheets or contrived essays.

No question, these types of assessments are more inefficient, subjective and time-consuming than the traditional variety. But they're worth it.

This is an excerpt from Will Richardson's new TED e-book, Why School?

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Bob Sampson's picture
Bob Sampson
Principal at Bellingham Christian School

The overall emphasis to teach kids to use the knowledge and technology they have in order to answer more complex questions is great. Like Dorothy Sayers said in her 1947 essay. "For we let our young men and women go out unarmed in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, [& Internet] we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.... We have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it."

Teaching kids to think is clear. We need to do that. However, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We also need to make sure kids have the tools for learning. We need to teach them the skills of reading, math and writing. At the same time, we need to teach them to think. These things need to be assessed and standardized assessments let's use know how kids are comparing with the rest of the nation. Determining the skills needed for learning (attempts of the common core), assessing these and teaching students to think, I believe, would be a good curriculum that we assess.

Dean Shareski's picture

The other idea that needs to shift is assessment, in whatever form we choose still is about power and varying levels of compliance. While there may be some value in those in small doses, the biggest shift needs to be in the area of self assessment. Waiting for others to constantly tell you how well you're doing is not a particularly good disposition to develop. We need to be finding better ways for students to reflect and assess themselves. Grades, right hold credentialling value and that's about it. Evaluation is such a small part of learning. (by the way I don't use assessment and evaluation synonymously) and yet we still use it to maintain control and compliance. If we really want it to be about learning and authentic learning, the locus of control must shift to the learner. That's pretty scary for schools but I think that's hugely important.

Amanda's picture
Amanda
High School Math Teacher from Minnesota

I believe that changing the way we assess will be very beneficial to our students. Making them take the information that they were given and apply it to everyday life will definitely be a better way to assess that they have learned the intended information. The biggest challenge will to get everyone in your department to agree this is a positive change.

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