Eliminating the Fear of the Test: Reflections on Assessments

26Mar07

Evaluation and Assessment of Curriculum

Abstract

Our world is full of assessments. This seems especially true to those in the education field who conduct assessments ranging from self-designed assessments for classroom use, to nationally designed assessments to compare students from different states or districts. So caught up are we in the act of either administering or taking an assessment, that we rarely stop to ask questions like, “Why are we conducting this assessment?”, “What will be the added value of conducting this assessment?”, and “Are the assessments we use being used appropriately?” The following questions are addressed in the following first-person narrative account based on some of my experiences with assessments. In the process, I also highlight two experiences with traditional assessments which had drastically different impacts on my perception of assessments.

Eliminating the Fear of the Test: Reflections on Assessments

Chances are that no matter how much you search, you are not likely to find very many people who say that they love to take tests. You may find a few who are ambivalent, many who say it is one of the things they like least about learning, and even a few who genuinely have severe test-taking anxieties; but rare are those who say anything more enthusiastic than “I do not really care either way.” Still, many teachers and schools swear by testing as the de facto approach for measuring student achievement. Is testing the only answer? Or are there other ways to assess learning that may be viewed more favorably by students while still serving the purpose of evaluating whether the educational goals outlined in a curriculum are being adequately met?

Before answering those questions, it may be helpful to first consider why we perform assessments. In many ways, our daily lives are filled with continuous assessments. Any time we set a standard—even a personal standard—we are preparing ourselves for an assessment to take place. Even with my hobbies such as designing websites or writing stories, I set standards or goals for myself. These standards and goals may not be formally documented, and I may not include details such as a timeframe or, for that matter, what I would consider a failed attempt; however, knowing that I will ultimately be judging my effort inspires me to try harder, and this critical review of my efforts helps direct my future endeavors. Furthermore, since my learning, in this case, is self-directed, I may find in the process that I actually cannot achieve a certain goal without first teaching myself a few prerequisite skills.

Educational assessments can serve a similar purpose. They can identify gaps in student performance, helping a teacher determine which curriculum items need to be re-addressed before students can advance to a higher level. If students have a clear map of what they will be responsible for knowing by the end of a particular unit or grade level, they can use the assessments as a self-regulating mechanism that prescribes their requirements for success. This can be seen as performance-based, or standards-based assessment—a process in which assessments are directed towards the individual. However, beyond this form of assessment, educational assessments can also be used to compare across a group of students. More widely used state or national forms of these assessments are referred to as standardized tests because the content and the process for administering the tests are standardized. Each student’s performance is compared to the performance of all the other students who have taken this test, and students are ranked into varying percentiles based on their performance. Because these tests are often analyzed using a standard bell-shaped curve, there are clear “winners” and “losers” with this form of assessment, and the difference in the raw score between a student in the 89th percentile and a student in the 90th percentile can be very close.

“Standardized” assessments are rarely used in the classroom; however, one of the most negative experiences I have had with assessment relates to one such test. My older brother and I were both taking summer classes at the community college. Since it was going to be my brother’s last summer before he transferred, we decided to take a class together and engage in some brotherly competition. The class seemed great. Within the class, the teacher offered a range of assessments including take-home papers, in-class multiple-choice exams, in-class essays, and group presentations. This seemed like a promising move, especially since it seemed like a good way to give students with different skills a chance to demonstrate what they were learning. However, the week before finals, the teacher announced that his class was strictly based on a bell-shaped curve. Thus, your grade was not determined by what your final score was in terms of a percentage; instead, he would assign exactly five “A” grades, eight “B” grades, and so on. My older brother and I ended up half a point apart: I received a 92.5%, and he a 93%. Furthermore, he received the fifth highest grade in the class, making his score the cutoff point for a grade of “A.” I left that class feeling very discouraged since I felt that the grade was neither an accurate reflection of what I felt I had learned nor an accurate reflection of the effort I put into the class. The teacher was using a method of scoring that is more appropriate for measuring the performance of hundreds or thousands of students on a single classroom.

Conversely, one of the more positive experiences I have had with assessment actually occurred in elementary school in Trinidad. The educational system in Trinidad is very competitive, even for young elementary school students, and I remember suffering from chronic tonsillitis in second grade just prior to the mid-term exams. I performed horribly on my exams, ranking 25th in a class of 30 students, and I remember slinking home, thoroughly afraid of the consequences of my poor performance. However, my teacher visited my home later that week and sat with my parents and me and discussed how the testing was done. She reassured me that the tests were cumulative, so my performance on the tests which would take place at the end of the third quarter and at the end of the year would outweigh—perhaps even cancel—the score I received on my mid-term exams. Besides giving me a feeling of hope, rather than feeling like giving up entirely, this conversation also served as an indicator of exactly what I would have to do to be performing at the level that I hoped to be performing at.

Despite such extreme experiences even at a personal level, I still feel that assessments are valuable. Assessments are useful to different stakeholders in the educational system. We have already considered some examples of how assessment can be used by teachers or students. But assessments are also useful for administrators and policy makers. For example, the results of assessments can be valuable in directing future curriculum changes or at least serve as a foundation for exploring reasons why a particular curriculum item was not adequately addressed. In other words, similar to the example I gave where I may find that I need additional skills before I try to tackle a personally established goal, an administrator reviewing cumulative assessment results might be able to identify resource or process deficiencies that impede the effective delivery of a particular curriculum item. Furthermore, standardized tests can help compare different schools and can be useful in our increasingly mobile world in which students may change school districts to follow the geographic career paths of their parents.

In education today, however, assessments are a very touchy subject, especially when one starts to look at things like standardized testing and high-stakes testing. Linking financial incentives to test performance, for example, may contribute to a negative cycle of funding for schools which are genuinely trying to improve their performance. Imagine, for example, that an already low-ranking school performs poorly one year, and as a result, receives reduced funding for the forthcoming year. The reduced funding may actually negatively impact the potential for the school to actually do any better than before, leading to budget cuts that may again result in poor performance. These cuts may be made irrespective of whether the school had actually improved its performance overall since the schools are often ranked in comparison to other schools rather than in comparison to its prior performance. For high-stakes testing to be a good use of assessments, all schools would have to be on a level playing field from the start, which is simply not the case among schools today.

Further criticisms of assessments today focus on the import attached to single tests today. For example, in Trinidad, all elementary school students took an exam at the end of grade six that determined which high school they could be admitted to. Similarly, high school students in the United States are often pressured with the weight some universities attribute to the SATs in their enrollment decisions. While these forms of tests may be appropriate indicators of the potential for student performance, they do not necessarily measure what the student has learned, and to many, that should be the true use of an assessment.

Assessments play a significant role in any learning endeavor. In the above discussion, I did not even begin to explore the realm of alternative assessments that can alleviate some of the problems identified, but it is promising to note that many teachers today have begun to re-think the different forms of assessment that should be implemented in their classrooms. A range of assessments will always be necessary. Truly individualized assessments are unrealistic on a national level, and the decisions that can be made from these types of assessments would be limited since the results cannot be compared across a range of schools very easily. However, within a school, and definitely within a classroom, more individualized forms of assessment may actually be helpful in motivating students and may hold the power to change the overwhelmingly impartial or negative view of assessment.

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