George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

A Q&A with High Tech High teaching guru Rob Riordan.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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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.

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Joan Soble's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, Rob -- Don't know if I can address you directly here, but I will -- since I actually know you!

I really enjoyed your assessment interview and the High Tech High article in the most recent Edutopia.

I'm glad to hear you talk about the importance beauty and "lasting value." Cambridge Rindge and Latin School has gotten involved with the Making Learning Visible Project at Project Zero, and that project places a great and, I believe, important emphasis placed on the aesthetics of both learning products and learning processes. But it's often hard to find the language to talk about all of this. It seems like the language of the field of education isn't expansive and nuanced enough to capture what people - kids and adults -- experience when they encounter that kind of work -- but they know they're experiencing it that way.

Your interview will our teacher groups working on developing really meaningful authentic assessments some great ideas to chew on and some language to express them. Thank you for that.

Love the symbolism of your school's glass walls.
Looking forward to seeing and reading more!
Joan Soble

Rob Riordan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Joan,

Great to hear from you. Glad to hear CRLS is into Making Learning Visible. For a compelling interview with Ron Berger on beautiful work, multiple drafting, and critique, see the inaugural issue of UnBoxed, our journal of adult learning in schools:

Hello to all my former colleagues at CRLS!


Patrick Moran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Rob,

I have been teaching Chinese language (among other subjects) for many years at the college level. In recent years my intermediate classes have accepted more and more freshmen who have learned beginning Chinese before. These students share many problems with students who have learned beginning Chinese at the college level. It is my hope that some improvements in Chinese language teaching might be easier to engineer among teachers at the pre-college level. It is not that I am blaming pre-college level teachers for the educational outcomes, but because I believe that teachers on the college level may be more resistant to change.

The problem I see over and over again is that students must unlearn much because for some reason they have not received adequate feedback while they have supposedly been learning the basics. Starting long ago, I have done a fair amount of work with programmed teaching tools. A fundamental principle of that discipline is that one moves by increments and always on the basis of a prior well established foundation. The foundation levels are continually firmed up and maintained. What I see instead of that kind of careful preparation is that most students end up composing Chinese sentences by simply stringing vocabulary items together roughly in the order their counterparts would hold in an English sentence. They have not learned the fundamental tools of communication in their target language. Rather than the poor preparation I am seeing with most students at the intermediate level, I would like to have students who have been presented with less and have mastered more. Then I could go ahead on a solid basis.

I am a bit like the investigator who tries to figure out what happened by looking at tire marks on the pavement and the locations of wrecked cars, but I think I know the major outline of what is happening. Too many vocabulary items are presented per unit of contact time in the classroom. Too many new grammatical items are presented before old items have been learned well enough to remain stable if given occasional touch-ups. Correct pronunciation is not "shaped" properly before practice makes permanent. The result is that instead of learning a reasonable number of items well, students pick up a smaller number of items as a random sub-set of an unreasonable number of items offered. Also, students too often come into my classes having spent at least two semesters learning the wrong pronunciations.

In addition to adjusting the rate of new material to absorbable levels and giving timely feedback on pronunciation in class and on general progress through weekly quizzes, it is also possible to improve learning outcomes by careful consideration of the sequence in which items should be taught. For instance, the learning of Chinese characters is often regarded as the greatest obstacle to fast progress in Chinese, but by adjusting the sequence in which items are taught I have greatly increased the learning efficiency of my students. Similarly, timely explanation in non-technical vocabulary of how to pronounce the speech sounds found in Chinese but not present in English can save an enormous amount of student frustration.

The whole field needs a reality check, in my opinion, but that opinion is not shared by any great number of my colleagues. It would be easier to make improvements by achieving good crops in the areas where the soil is not so hard to till.

I would appreciate any advice or critique you may have.

Patrick Moran

guide's picture
Counsellor with a passion to build world class assessments

How do we get know each students weak area after teaching. In classroom time is limiting factor and a standard test may not reflect individual weaknesses. That is where self assessment on random basis on key concepts and topics become important

Further as they are on random basis from a knowledge pool, they may also bring to notice of learner many important areas overlooked by teacher or some area not adequately covered

Randomness and surprise are good ingredients in any assessment.

I have earlier also posted comments about website where parameter based randomness is key in formative and summative assessment. Each student may get different questions on same topic or concept or if questions are limited for a concept, at the order of questions and order of answers is random. Further as knowledge pool keeps changing dynamically, it make it far more interesting

Kindly check whether Self Assessor (Formative) and Test Simulator are help. Send the feedback to site owners for improvement.

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