Rethinking Assessment

November 1, 2012
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
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:

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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  • 9-12 High School

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