Assessment is nearly a constant feature of a decent classroom. Every time a teacher asks a question in class, leads a discussion, conferences with a child about his work, looks at homework, or glances over a student’s shoulder while she is writing, he or she is assessing–making a judgement about what the child knows, can do, and needs help with. A baseline idea in education is “assessment drives instruction” — in order to meet a child where he or she is, you have to know where exactly that is.
For a teacher, this is among the blandest, most obvious statements imaginable. So why bring it up? The New York Times, as it is wont to do, has discovered that young children in China are tested constantly–from “mad minute” math quizzes to science exams. Elizabeth Rosenthal writes that for her two young children attending elementary school in China, “taking tests was as much a part of the rhythm of their school day as tag at recess or listening to stories at circle time.”
In Asia, such a march of tests for young children was regarded as normal, and not evil or particularly anxiety provoking. That made for some interesting culture clashes. I remember nearly constant tension between the Asian parents, who wanted still more tests and homework, and the Western parents, who were more concerned with whether their kids were having fun — and wanted less.
Point taken. Another recent New York Times piece described the benefits of testing as a learning tool. “The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future,” observed the Times’ Benedict Carey.
So assessment is fundamental to teaching, and testing is not only a form of assessment, but a potentially powerful learning tool. Still, I worry that the wrong takeaways will result from these pieces. As with, well, everything in education, the risk of oversimplification here is great. Surely, there is a difference between the constant assessment –formal and informal — that takes place in nearly every good classroom and drives instruction, and the annual ritual of high-stakes testing that now dominates elementary and middle schools. Likewise there is a difference between studying and mastering a body of material for, say, a biology or geometry test, and a state reading test. There is no body of knowledge to study with a reading test. Test-taking skills and reading strategies that might provide a short-term boost are deleterious in the long run. Countless hours of test prep and strategy sessions are educationally unproductive. And it would be naive in the extreme to suggest high-stakes tests are not materially different than a workaday math quiz in the anxiety they produce.
The bottom line, as always: it’s complicated. These issues are not simply about “testing good” or “testing bad.” With the exception of a few anti-testing zealots — and they are few indeed — it is the rare educator who is opposed to all testing. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to teach at all without assessing your students on a nearly constant basis, formally and informally. Yes, lots of kids love to compete against themsleves and classmates on “mad minute” math drills. Yes, classroom tests focus the mind and efforts of students to master material. Unfortunately, none of these things are true of high stakes reading and math tests. They don’t drive instruction because months go by before you get the results. No bragging rights or competitive juices are fired by them. And reading tests are impossible to study for since they are constructed on a mistaken notion of reading as a transferable skill. It’s possible to be a firm believer in testing–even high stakes testing–yet have misgivings about their impact on education.