What’s Not on the Test: How to Turn Assessment into Learning

A Q&A with High Tech High teaching guru Rob Riordan.

December 3, 2008

At High Tech High, a family of San Diego charter schools, authenticity rules. Across the eight campuses, teachers strive to draw connections between students' work and the adult world, in large part through projects and public presentations of learning (POLs). A leader of that work is Rob Riordan, who holds the self-created title emperor of rigor.

Credit: Edutopia

An educator for thirty-five years, Riordan works with teachers across the organization in its small graduate school of education to make teaching and learning more, well, rigorous. He calls assessment -- a keystone of his efforts -- an "episode of learning," one that happens every day: "We're trying to figure out, all the time, what are we learning, and how do we know?"

Riordan is coauthor of Seeing the Future: A Planning Guide for High Schools and Schooling for the Real World: The Essential Guide to Rigorous and Relevant Learning. He was named National School to Work Practitioner of the Year in 1994, and for several years led the teaching practicum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Teachers in training at the High Tech High graduate school have dubbed him Yoda for his insight and ability to help them think through problems. This fall, he sat down with to offer our readers some insight into the problems of assessment. At High Tech, what is assessment for?

Rob Riordan: One part of it is that we want all our kids to graduate from here qualified and ready to enter the University of California system. So we have certain assessment goals to assure ourselves that our kids read, write, and compute well. Although the state tests and SATs give us only a narrow range of kids' competencies, they do give us some sense of their readiness to go on.

The other part is really about having kids produce beautiful work of lasting value. We do that through frequent presentations of learning and classroom critiques, where kids reflect on the work they've done. The ideal is that kids come and see work that's really good and they say, "That's what I'm gonna do next time." Teachers, too, come to an exhibition, and they see the work of another class and say, "Oh, there's something I can be doing here."

Creating beautiful work of lasting value -- that's really different from the traditional idea of testing: an impartial question with a right answer and a wrong answer.

It is. That's not the only thing we do, but we think it's the most important thing we do. Because we believe the first issue in middle school and high school education is engagement; if you don't have that, you don't get very far with anything else. Engaging kids in work where they are pursuing their interests and passions, working in a community of learners, and seeing what is possible is inspiring to them. It creates ownership and engagement, and then a lot of the skills you need to succeed in school and life kind of trail along.

What is the role of standardized testing here?

Well, it's compulsory, so we try to take a positive attitude toward it and encourage our kids to do their best. We tell them that the tests measure only a part of what they know and who they are, but that, particularly in language arts and math, tests are very skills based, and so they can give us some sense of how we're doing. The other tests, in science and history, are primarily content based. No school can cover everything that's in all of the standards, so those tests are a bit of a crapshoot anyway. And we prefer to go deep on history content instead of trying to cover everything a mile wide and an inch deep.

Back to the idea of assessment, which is different from testing: You see assessment as not only an outcome but also a lesson in itself?

Yes, and a lesson for teachers, too, because if you do it that way, you learn a lot more about what your kids think. There are some surprises there. You know so much more about what they're learning when they tell you what they're learning, what they think they're working on, and what they still don't get. Part of my work is to encourage teachers to check in frequently with their kids, even use exit cards at the end of every day, asking about one thing you learned today or one question you still have.

How do you structure a presentation of learning (POL) so you get evidence that kids are learning what you want them to learn?

You try to be very clear about what you're after. At High Tech High Chula Vista, for example, they have established some habits of heart and mind, like persistence, mindfulness, and evidence. They've structured a POL where kids bring in artifacts of their learning and talk about how the artifacts show that they have made progress in these areas.

So, there is a clarity of expectation. What else?

We want the POL to be not just a simple assessment but also a community learning event. So we consider who the audience is for this presentation of learning and how to work with the audience to assist and push the expression of learning that's going on. How can we structure the POL so it becomes much more like a conversation than a simple presentation?

What's the relationship between the way our world is changing -- the new demands and the opportunities out there -- and what and how we assess?

That's related to the question of what kids need to learn to succeed in this world that's coming. Over the years, it's all been about content. What they really need to know now is how to access content, play with it, transform it, synthesize it, and use it, and how to work with others to do all of that. So what we want to try to assess is those kinds of behaviors. And we do content assessment as well, because that can also offer a window on how well you've executed some of these processes.

Assessing these more interactive, connective skills must be more time consuming than your traditional kind of test.

It's more time consuming in a way, but not if you view it as part of your instruction, if kids are presenting their work all the time, even in simple ways like pair-and-share, so it's not an add-on. The other piece about the POLs is that they're a celebration. They're a wonderful community event, so in that way, it feels less like an add-on and more like a culmination.

What would you say to teachers at schools unlike High Tech High -- meaning most schools -- about what they can do to deepen assessment even when they feel constrained by No Child Left Behind?

Follow your instincts about what you're after with kids and how you think you can assess it -- things that don't really show up on the tests. Teachers are very aware that tests measure only a narrow band and that they're teaching whole children. To the degree possible, in your own context, it's kids first, you know? Testing in itself doesn't help them, so we have to find ways to counterbalance it.

How does High Tech High get away with it?

Number one, we have pretty good test scores, which has kept people off our backs. We also exhibit our students' work. Parents and members of the community say, "Wow, I could never have done this in my high school days." They see the quality of the work students have done and the engagement, and they realize that's what they're after.

Number two has to do with what we advise people here: A significant part of good test taking is about good thinking. If you are a good reader and can put together a decent paragraph in writing or can express your thoughts, chances are you're going to do pretty well on those tests. To a certain degree, those tests do call on skills that are developed when you do a lot of reading, writing, and math.

Projects are not devoid of those things. So I would encourage teachers to not forsake those things that build general thinking skills and general skills of expression, because the other way -- the test-prep way, the kind of atomized way of preparing for tests -- is a blind alley. It doesn't lead anywhere. It leads to forgetting.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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