Guest Blog: Rethinking the Testing Culture for the 21st Century

January 14, 2010

Each week, educators from around the world meet on Twitter to debate, ruminate, and brainstorm on the top issues of the day via #edchat. We are avid supporters of #edchat, and we have started to publish a weekly guest blog by one of the chat's attendees.

This week's #edchat tackled assessment in the 21st century. Guest blogging about it is Greg Thompson. On Twitter, he's known as @akamrt. He is an educational freelancer who has taught for 23-plus years from fifth grade through graduate school and publishes a blog called Constructing Meaning.

For more on this topic, check out this first-hand opinion of a standardized test scorer about how assessments can -- and should -- change.

--Betty Ray, Community Manager (@EdutopiaBetty) and Elana Leoni, Online Membership Coordinator (@elanaleoni)

Tuesday's #edchat (January 12) revolved around an evocative issue: standardized testing. The initial question, "How should standardized testing evolve to reflect digital elements and 21st-century skills?" kicked off a spirited discussion.

The world around our schools changes at a dramatic pace, and this change seems to happen over night at times leading to fundamental questions:

@rliberni: Are conventional tests too narrow?

@wmchamberlain: Should standardized testing continue at all?

A growing voice in education claims standardized testing is not providing us with information that matters and is taking us further away from a real purpose for public education. This concern includes the belief that the Race to the Top initiative is an apple that did not fall far from the No Child Left Behind tree. This growing concern makes consideration of the initial #edchat question difficult.

@mattguthrie: I can't reconcile standardized testing, digital elements, and 21st-century skills.

@raffelsol: If we have to teach via multiple disciplines, why aren't tests given in the same fashion?

@andycinek: 21st-century tests need to move beyond the shaded circle and offer variety.

No one denies the need for efforts to ensure that students are developing the knowledge base and skill set that will serve them well in a future we currently cannot visualize. However, the time has come to consider scrapping the testing culture that has evolved in education (not just locally -- globally as well) and rethink why we educate children, then develop assessments that support that purpose.

During #edchat, a couple of alternative forms of or approaches to significant summative assessment were mentioned. Olaf Elch (@olafelch) pointed to a program in Denmark where students are allowed to access the Internet during their final exams:

One of the teachers stands in front of the class and explains the rules. She tells the candidates they can use the Internet to answer any of the four questions. They can access any site they like, even Facebook, but they cannot message each other or email anyone outside the classroom.

The e-Scape project was cited as a model for new thinking about standardized or high-stakes testing:

Most teachers agree that the present assessment system is seriously flawed and often rewards the wrong students -- notably, the ones that meticulously follow the rules rather than break them and come up with really exciting ideas.

This new approach to the assessment of creativity and design innovation has students using mobile digital devices to evidence their ongoing work during carefully structured design tasks.

The e-scape project focuses on critical 21st-century concerns, creativity, and innovation. Current testing forms and methods do not provide insight into these critical skills. What skills should we asses? The umbrella of what is considered "21st-century skills" is untenably broad:

@jgmac1106: I think the operational definition of "21st-century skills" is still too fuzzy for testing. We are ten years in and can't agree.

Do we test students' abilities to email, text, chat, blog, or develop wikis or nings? What about their ability to do online research and verify the information? Is this an old skill cast in new clothing or a new, more complex skill? If we must test these skills -- very questionable -- do they fit into the traditional "bubble" format?

It is not easy to define digital literacy and other so-called 21st-century skills, and they evolve at a speed that would render standardized tests outdated before they hit the press. NCLB and the Race to the Top are predicated on standardized testing -- turning students into data points. Current testing procedures are not compatible with the present, so we must question their relevance in predicting students levels of success in the future.

We should reframe the #edchat question "How should our thinking about standardized testing evolve so it reflects the current reality?" By refocusing the purpose of education so it is once again about the process (learning) and not a product (test score), we might find that formative assessment tells us all we need to know. Then, we can allow students a space at the end of their learning to create and innovate, skills they will need if they are to create the future they will own.

Check out the rest of the #edchat transcript here. If you have never participated in an #edchat conversation, please join us on Twitter every Tuesday at 12 p.m. EST/6 p.m. CET or at 7 p.m. EST/1 a.m. CET.

Greg Thompson is an educational freelancer who blogs about education at Constructing Meaning and is involved in the Flat Classroom Project. He was a classroom teacher for 23 years, teaching in both online programs and brick-and-mortar classrooms. He has worked with students at levels ranging from fifth grade through graduate school. The focus of his writing and work is to encourage and foster a significant discussion about rethinking school in a way that will lead to substantial change in the educational system.

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