A Vision of Standardized Assessment

I must admit that I am writing this to try to figure something out. I am thinking publicly, so to speak, because writing helps me to crystallize my ideas. I was distracted, to say the least, during #edchat tonight. I followed it as best as I could. Unfortunately, the combination of coming in 10 minutes late, taking care of my demanding 1 year old, and trying Tweetgrid for the first time (Many swear by it, but it made following #edchat much more difficult for me), I only caught a little of the conversation. @tomwhitby, @foustmusic, and @kylepaceengaged me some in a short conversation that got ideas brewing about something I have thought about on and off for a few years.

Tom Whitby mentioned that both the government and the public want a metaphorical receipt for the tax dollars that they are spending on education. Living in Tennessee, which just won$500 million in Race to the Top funding, this is especially relevant. Most teachers agree that standardized testing in its current implementation is quite flawed. The culture of testing is just going to get worse in America with the advent of Race to the Top. Just a few of flaws inherent in using a small number of tests to evaluate both students and teachers:

  1. If a student has a poor night’s sleep, forgets breakfast, or is not feeling well, that student will do worse on the test, reflecting poorly on the teacher.
  2. It is a widely recognized fact that different students learn in different ways, yet they are all assessed the same way? On what planet does that make sense? If you learn kinesthetically (through physically doing something), we are going to assess your learning through a multiple choice test. If you learning artistically, we are going to assess your learning through a multiple choice test.
  3. Since not all students are natural test takers, time that would otherwise be spent on content is spent on test-taking strategies. Time is wasted helping students learn to manipulate the system. That is really all teaching test-taking strategies does. We teach students how to best guess if they are not sure. It is not acceptable that a student admits s/he does not know and goes back to try to learn the concept.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Standardized testing does not provide a clear enough picture of what students really know and, as such, it should not be used as a main component of teacher evaluation. So, what is the solution? I am not suggesting to have the answer that will solve the standardized testing problem or be a panacea of all education’s woes. I would like to submit an idea for consideration though.

I believe that portfolio assessment has potential. The way I see portfolio assessment playing out is that students are provided with a list of standards that they need to master to graduate high school (Elective are another issue, but it can be dealt with fairly simply. Stick with me on the bigger picture for the time being if you will.). Over the course of their high school career, they create projects that help them to explore, understand, and show mastery of standards. How they show mastery is irrelevant; they can choose the means that works best for them. I can see this happening in the normal classroom setting where a teacher in each content area helps guide the student through his or her exploration. I can also see this happening in a more open environment where teachers act more as mentors/consultants where students can come to them for help in crafting projects to explore the standards on their own time.

Technically, this would actually be fairly easy to implement. The free, open-source e-portfolio software Mahara could easily work. Where I am having trouble is seeing how a government that wants a standardized assessment for every student in the country could implement individualized assessment for every student. The ideas just don’t seem to mesh. The local teachers who have worked with the student could evaluate the portfolio every few months to make sure the student is on track and make the final decision, but that would take the power away from the government, which is not likely going to please President Obama or Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The government could streamline and assess the portfolios themselves (or more likely, hire a third party like ETS). The problem with that is that when you are trying to standardize how students show mastery we are going to fall into the same trap of teaching to the portfolio assessor to make sure they get what they want to see. This would drain the life and creativity, and hence the whole point, out of the portfolio system.

So I am missing something. I don’t know what. I could be way off in left field with the whole idea, but something does not click. Do you think e-portfolios have potential on a wide scale? We need to deal with the circumstances in which we have been placed. The government is going to require evidence of learning. What do you think would allow for simultaneous standardization of assessment while allowing  for individuality in both demonstration of mastery and freedom to teach and learn in different ways?