My vision of meaningful assessment begins simply enough, not with images but with sounds -- snippets of talk. Listen to students: They no longer ask teachers, "Is this what you want?" or "Is this going to be on the test?"
Instead, students know right from the start what they are expected to learn. Like athletes and actors, they've studied models of high performance and monitor their own progress toward those yardsticks. You can hear them asking each other or their teachers, "How can I improve this?" or "How can I find more evidence to support my conclusion?"
In my vision, teachers talk about more sophisticated performance, not higher scores. One hears almost no talk about averages or normal curves, because the goal is for every student to achieve at the highest possible level.
Teachers seek as much information as possible about how students are learning in order to provide them with better coaching and guidance. They draw on actual samples of student work, easily accessible in electronic databases, as they talk about how to improve achievement. Teachers spend part of their time developing and refining ways of assessing student learning and helping students learn the skill of self-assessment.
Outside of school, policy makers and the media are no longer heard judging programs, schools, school districts, or states solely on the basis of test scores. They understand that no single standardized test is an adequate measure of learning. They've stopped trying to use tests to improve schools, realizing this strategy makes as much sense as trying to improve government by giving legislators a multiple-choice test.
Rather, policy makers and the media use a broad range of indicators to monitor schools, looking for appropriate gains when current performance is compared with past performance. Accountability measures are based on the goal of having every student meet high standards.
The common thread in all these discussions is a different understanding of the purpose of assessment: it's not a way of designating winners and losers at the end of the game. Tests and other assessments are valuable only when they provide worthwhile information that can be used to improve student achievement. This information is needed long before the end of a lesson or a year so that adjustments can be made before it is too late.
Seeing Is Believing
What do we see as we wander around a school that is part of this vision, then? The assessment process is so unobtrusive to students and teachers, so seamless with teaching and learning, that it is indistinguishable from what takes place during good instruction.
We see kids working together and critiquing each other, science experiments being brought to fruition, art exhibits being finished, and debate points being honed. In short, we see authentic assessments -- learning activities that closely resemble the ways students will be expected to use their knowledge and skills in the real world.
We still see students working and teachers observing carefully, taking notes -- the oldest and most revealing mode of assessment. In some schools, we see teachers using computers and audio or video recorders to help them monitor student work, building databases that can help identify the ways a particular student learns best.
Some students are taking tests that are standardized to allow comparisons among schools, school districts, states, and nations. But these tests no longer consist of multiple-choice questions so they can be easily scored by a machine. Instead, most tests are scored by hand, to ensure that student performance is judged against sophisticated criteria.
Reliable scores are achieved through training teachers in the standards and criteria measured by each test (a scoring system used for decades for Advanced Placement examinations). Hundreds of standardized tests are available, and teachers use them primarily to assess both their own and their students' progress.
Older observers, used to exams that entail silence and test booklets, are surprised to learn that a lively discussion between a teacher and a small group of students is actually a formal and rigorous assessment.The teacher is asking them probing questions about their project.
She wants to know not only what assumptions the students started with and what decisions they have made, but also why they are using certain strategies and what they might do differently. The conversation is being recorded and will be transcribed for later, more careful analysis by the teacher and a colleague whose students are working on a similar project hundreds of miles away.
Some students are working on their digital portfolios, assembling the elements required for each of their learning plans. They select work that demonstrates what they are learning, including papers, test results, and video or audio recordings.
They also complete a self-assessment that prompts them to think about what they are learning, to recognize high-quality work, and to plan how they can perform better in the future.
Others are building bridges, staging plays, and mounting museum exhibits, using computer simulations instead of physical materials. Such simulations require students to demonstrate their understanding of knowledge, skills, and ideas by using them in context. They also allow teachers to gauge the student's ability to self-adjust in response to the typical problems of each context. Feedback is immediate, just as it has always been on the job or the playing field, and part of what is being measured is the degree to which a student solicits, ponders, and effectively uses the feedback.
Better Information Pinpoints Learners’ Needs
For the most part, in this scenario, a whole class of students is almost never seen taking the same test at the same time. Advances in technology allow assessments to be personalized to reflect the goals and current areas of focus for each individual student. Computer simulations, for example, quickly adapt to a student's responses and apparent level of understanding. And the simulations have memory: The student's past achievements are used as a benchmark for assessing new gains.
Instead of comparing students to each other, based on arbitrary timetables, students can be compared against performance standards and benchmarks. Teachers, students, and parents have instantaneous access to detailed achievement profiles, including where each student's current performance level can be placed on a career-long scale (as has long been done in chess or gymnastics).
Helping students understand standards and the criteria for meeting them is now seen as an important part of the teaching process. When they understand what they are expected to learn, students can play a major role in setting immediate and long-range goals and assessing their own progress, much as they track their scores on computer games and their performances in athletics. Self-assessment is finally recognized as a vital skill for success in the world outside school.
Computerized portfolios of each student's performance over time give teachers and students access to information that is invaluable in helping design and adjust individualized learning plans. Both the assessments and subsequent reports allow monitoring of student learning at a level of detail never before practical, so teachers can focus activities much more directly to the specific needs of a single pupil or group of students.
In addition, they can draw on a wider array of information to track progress toward more elusive goals, such as perseverance, craftsmanship, and effective problem solving.
Fair and Useful Accountability
In my vision, the accumulated database of student work provides policy makers with better information to help determine whether particular schools and school districts are measuring up to agreed-on standards. Because school sites have diverse goals, they are judged not against each other, but against themselves.
Schools are assessed based on achieving their own goals and on demonstrating improved student achievement over time. Thus, the process of holding schools and school districts accountable for results is more equitable and useful.
States no longer give tests; instead, they test them: They certify that local assessment systems are up to standards, and that schools and school districts regularly monitor their progress toward their goals. Random audits of district and school databases help officials monitor local assessment processes and make sure they meet established criteria. Officials call up sets of student papers to make sure performance standards are high and that scoring is consistent. Based on these audits, state personnel make recommendations and assist in improving local assessment systems.
At the local level, teams of teachers routinely collaborate on assessments to ensure consensus and consistency in the scoring of work. Any teacher or student can easily access an international database of tasks, criteria, benchmarks, and student work products that enable longitudinal assessment -- a continuum from rank novice to expert -- for almost any subject or course imaginable. And teachers from other schools come in periodically to judge performance and help conduct audits to ensure validity and reliability.
Significantly, teachers are not the only people setting standards or evaluating student work. College professors and businesspeople help make sure standards prepare students for the world beyond school and help judge major assessments of student portfolios and performance.
In fact, because schooling has become a community-wide affair, teachers don't hesitate to ask for help from anyone whose expertise might be valuable during a particular learning activity. These guests don't simply impart their wisdom and leave, but rather stick around to help evaluate what students, teachers, and even they themselves have learned.
Employers and college admissions officers each devise different ways of interpreting the database or portfolio of work candidates present. Some choose to combine quantifiable results into a single, ranked score, while others take the time to look more deeply at specific qualities needed for success. Either way, few ever pine for the days when all the information they had about a candidate's education was a grade point average and a couple numerical test scores.
Not Just a Vision -- a Reality
Is such a system of personalized, rigorous, ongoing assessment desirable? Many of us think so. Feasible? Yes. Most of the scenes described above can be witnessed somewhere in the world, right now, as you imagine the possibilities.
Grant Wiggins, president of Authentic Education, in Hopewell, New Jersey, is coauthor, with Jay McTighe, of Understanding by Design.