Should we revisit testing as a means of assessment?
No doubt, students will need to be prepared for college (or, if you teach middle school high school; if you teach elementary school, middle school), and most colleges still using testing as a primary means of assessing students. After all, when you have a lecture class with 300 students, it is not feasible to use alternative methods of assessment. Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of keeping tests is to prepare students for the college environment.
I looked over my unit plans, lessons, and assessments this semester, and I realized something interesting. I have given very few tests. Most of the tests I have given have been summer reading assessments. I have relied primarily on the following means of assessment: quizzes, essays, and “authentic assessments.”
My quizzes are typically five-question, short answer quizzes over reading assignments so I can be sure students are doing the reading I have asked them to do. Students typically do either well or poorly on them based on how well they have read.
Essays are a staple of the English curriculum, but perhaps even more so at my school, with its competitive college preparatory environment and focus on developing writing skills. My goal has been to assign at least four essays for each class this semester. I have mostly realized this goal, largely through better planning using UbD to construct units. I also allowed most of my classes to choose an essay they wrote this semester to revise for a higher grade, as I believe revision and reflection help students see writing as a process.
My “authentic assessments” have come straight from UbD and include crafting a résumé for Beowulf, writing our own Odyssey in order to demonstrate understanding of Homer’s, writing a letter to Arkansas Representative Steve Harrelson regarding his state’s apostrophe dilemma, and creating a comma usage manual for Rogers Communications (that $2 million comma error had to hurt!).
As I indicated in a previous post, I simply ran out of time this semester in order to truly do what I wanted to do with each unit. I do have fewer minutes per week with my students than I would like — I average 45 minutes per day with each class, which is substantially less than other schools where I’ve worked. However, what I have learned about the authentic assessments is that they were not only much closer to the kinds of tasks students will be asked to do when they begin their careers than tests. How many tests have I taken as part of my job? I can’t think of any. I did have to take a test to get my certificate. I had to take another to exempt from a computer skills course required in my state. No principal has ever asked me to take a test for any reason. If you take a look at the kinds of tasks I asked students to do to prove to me they internalized the essential questions we were exploring as part of our units this semester, I think you might discover that the tasks were more engaging than the standard test. The tasks also asked students to think, internalize, apply, analyze, and synthesize information and present it in a unique fashion. In short, I think they were taxed to think critically on a much higher level in Bloom’s Taxonomy than a standard test would require.
Are tests going anywhere? I doubt it. And I do believe that students should know how to take a test and how to study in order to do well in college, but I also think it behooves us as educators to offer them opportunities to demonstrate their learning with authentic assessments that enable students to truly show us what they know and practice working on the kinds of tasks they will be asked to do as part of their careers one day. At any rate, it’s something to think about. Though I have had fewer tests in my class this semester, I don’t think my students have learned less or been less challenged. If anything, they have been more challenged (particularly with regards to writing). However, I do still plan to give them a final examination. Still, I think it would be an interesting challenge for all of us to examine what we are accomplishing through tests and ask ourselves if we are really preparing students for life beyond school.