Bruce Alberts: Assessment's Place in Education
Bruce Alberts is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, and former president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). During his twelve-year tenure at NAS, he played a key part in developing the National Science Education standards that are now used in schools across the country. In this interview, he discusses the connection between assessment and student learning, and the role of technology in supporting assessment.
- What is the relationship between assessment and student learning?
- What is the role of technology in supporting and enhancing assessment?
- What steps would you propose at the state and national level to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the standardized tests currently administered to K-12 students throughout the country?
- You’re a vocal advocate of inquiry-based science education. What changes do you propose in the way we assess science learning?
1. What is the relationship between assessment and student learning?
I can give you an example. I was a college professor for thirty years and didn't think much about tests. I gave tests. About halfway through my academic career, I came up to University of California at San Francisco where one of my teaching responsibilities was to teach first-year medical students biochemistry. And we had a lot of students -- and we were lazy. We wanted to give an exam that could be automatically graded by a scantron machine.
So, these had to be multiple-choice exams. We were complaining that the students, who were highly selected to be some of the best students in the United States, didn't seem to care anything about what were teaching them. They only wanted to know what was on the exam. And when you talked to them they were just memorizing everything. It was very frustrating to get them interested and really understanding what we were trying to teach them.
We tried to fool around with the exam. We tried multiple choice -- nothing ever worked. This went on for about three years and finally we bit the bullet, and decided we would make half the exam short-essay answers. That's the way that course has been taught now for about fifteen years. It made a huge difference. All of a sudden, they were interested in understanding. That was a shocking experience for me. It woke me up to the crucial importance of tests.
2. What is the role of technology in supporting and enhancing assessment?
The academy spent a major three-year effort bringing some of the best experts in testing and assessment together to try to envision the future around testing and the two elements necessary to make a high-quality test, which are essential for really driving education in the right direction.
One of the elements is the promise of modern technologies -- computer technologies -- that in principle could allow you to do sophisticated testing on a large, inexpensive scale. The other component, of course, is our understanding of how students learn and our understanding of what's important to learn. So, we need to bring those two communities together to work on creating tests, and this committee had that kind of a mixture.
The report, Knowing What Students Know, just came out and it emphasizes the optimistic feeling that we can do it. That is, there are few cases where enough effort's been put in to create tests using the best information we have about learning, and combining that with sophisticated computer techniques.
There are enough examples of those to give people the feeling that we can, in principle and if we put enough research and effort into it, develop relatively low-cost tests that students could take even over the Web so that we could get to scale with these tests and that these kinds of tests would drive the right kind of teaching and learning.
3. What steps would you propose at the state and national level to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the standardized tests currently administered to K-12 students throughout the country?
Right now we have examples, I think, of some tests that do the right thing. I would think that the state of Maryland's assessment -- which is basically problem oriented, performance oriented, and graded by teachers in schools -- is driving the right kind of teaching, and is having a good effect on learning. But, the sad part of all this, is that we haven't put enough resources into what I would call scientific research on education to find out whether the Maryland test is really working.
And so I would very much like the academy or somebody -- because somebody's got to do this -- to take advantage of the fact that we have all these states doing different experiments and take, for example, three or four states with very different assessments for science, Maryland would be one, and then actually do some research on what's the effect of teaching and learning of these different kinds of tests.
We've done these large-scale experiments, but nobody's evaluating them. Part of the reason nobody's evaluating is because the federal government doesn't like to do that kind of thing. Senators and governors don't like to be compared. But, in the private sector, at least, we should be able to do those kinds of comparisons so we could take advantage of the fact that we don't have a national system.
We're doing all of these experiments, and, in principle, we could create a continuously improving system by studying the experiments. But if we're doing experiments and nobody's evaluating, and everybody's claiming success, and every state thinks they have a good system, then of course, we're never going to get anywhere with education in United States.
4. You’re a vocal advocate of inquiry-based science education. What changes do you propose in the way we assess science learning?
We haven't put nearly enough money into developing good science tests. The National Science Foundation has put a lot of money into developing curriculum, but that's all for naught if this inquiry-based science curriculum can't be used because we have the wrong kind of test.
I think we need to get our priorities right. I think the government's got to rethink where they're putting their investments. For example, the National Science Foundation should be putting much more money into developing the right kind of test because it's hard. If it were easy, it would have been done, but it's hard and we still need to do it. We need to get some of our best, most-capable people together with outstanding teachers and work together on developing new kinds of testing. This is an absolute priority for the nation.
We need to get parents to understand this because I've talked to outstanding teachers who've said, "Well I'm teaching science as inquiry but the parents in my [suburban] districts are coming back at me. They know don't know how to help their kids with the test because it's a complicated test." It's not -- they can't use flashcards to help them study.
So, we've got to get parents to realize that this new kind of teaching, even if they can't help their kid with it, is better for their kid in the long run. This is a huge job, but testing is at the center of all this, because we're going to have high-stakes assessments on which the teachers in schools are evaluated. It's absolutely irrational for teachers to behave in any other way but to teach directly to that test.