Transformative learning gains start with asking the right questions
The tools we use to assess learning tend to be the tools we use to guide teaching. Accordingly, such tools can either limit the education experience or enrich it.
Standardized, multiple-choice formatted tests are a predominant tool we’ve used to gauge academic achievement in K-12 over the past century. The results have rarely been stellar, but they are especially concerning in the wake of COVID-19.
A new report from NWEA, a not-for-profit assessment provider, seems to confirm what many parents, educators, and policymakers already feared would happen due to school closures: students are scoring lower than their elder peers did in the past. For the most vulnerable students — those from historically marginalized or low-income communities — the slowdown in growth has been most severe.
Some educators have cautioned that perceptions of learning loss may be overblown — that it merely reflects disruption of “imagined trajectories.” They argue that focusing too much on learning loss diminishes the progress students have made despite substantial challenges. Overemphasizing deficits can further stigmatize underprivileged learners, compromising their sense of self-worth. These are all good points to consider.
Still, no matter how you verbalize or prioritize “learning loss,” students have likely missed opportunities to gain knowledge and skills that can help them excel academically and professionally. So how do we balance the need to address those gaps with concerns that overdoing it could unintentionally compound existing disparities?
Psychologist Carl Jung wrote that “To ask the right question is already half the solution of a problem.” Indeed, the solution to learning loss may lie in reexamining the questions that reflect our perception of the issue at hand.
Current question: “How do we help students perform better on standardized tests?”
If standardized tests are what we use to measure learning loss, then it would naturally follow that improving test scores is how we demonstrate learning gains. However, as education advocates far and wide have vocalized for years, there are multiple problems with this approach. Central to all of them is that making conventional assessment scores the sole or primary measure of achievement inevitably results in “teaching to the test.”
“Teaching to the test” discounts other important but harder-to-quantify skill areas, such as creativity, planning, resiliency, and teamwork. It treats knowledge as separate, distinct items rather than interconnected pieces of a bigger picture. Educators — especially those under high pressure to show class improvement — often succumb to more of the same tired teaching strategies that have bored students for the past decades: extra homework, practice drills, and test-taking strategy reviews.
Even when the data’s purpose is to encourage equity, issues can arise. Comparisons of group performance may overshadow individual needs and circumstances — if disadvantaged students score similarly to their privileged peers, they appear successful. If they score lower, they appear to be failing. The focus hinges more on equalizing test scores than maximizing individual growth in all the diverse ways students can express it.
After all these years, attempts to help students perform better on tests have yielded demoralizing outcomes — even before the pandemic, there had been no national progress in reading or math scores for at least a decade.
Maybe it’s time to find a better question to direct our efforts.
Proposed question: “How do we use assessment to accelerate, deepen, and showcase individual student learning?”
As things currently stand, our education system is oriented so that higher assessment scores are the objective — learning is positioned as a means to better test performance. But what if we reversed those roles so that learning was the goal and assessment was just one tool used to facilitate it? The essence of this seemingly radical approach entails shifting the balance between formative assessment and summative assessment.
Formative assessments inform and guide teaching; they help educators identify students’ strengths and weaknesses. Educators can conduct formative assessments using many different formal or informal methods, including classroom discussions, games, projects, and quizzes. Formative assessments are most effective when providing meaningful, actionable data for the instructor and nearly immediate feedback for the learner.
On the other hand, summative assessments — specifically the end-of-year standardized variety — primarily regulate accountability and gatekeeping, ranking student performance and carrying high stakes. Generally, they are best at testing lower-order recognition and recall skills, which are cultivated through rote memorization. Summative tests are usually delivered after teaching on a subject has concluded; by the time students receive their results, opportunities for further learning in areas of weakness have already passed.
Scott Marion, Executive Director at the Center for Assessment, offered nuanced insights into the challenges of testing reform during a keynote presentation at Beyond Multiple Choice, a virtual conference exploring the future of assessment. He argued in favor of balanced assessment systems that position student learning as the underlying model for both instructional support and institutional accountability. Without proper alignment, where all assessments tie to the same goals, you end up with a “hodgepodge of assessment where teachers are getting conflicting and incoherent information.” This leads to “incredible inefficiencies of time and opportunity cost.”
Balance does indeed seem to be a fundamental principle in finding sustainable assessment solutions. Though standardized tests have received condemnation for their overuse, they do serve an important function in monitoring consistency and equity in learning outcomes. Getting rid of them entirely would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. However, we cannot effectively bridge the widening learning gaps that summative tests have exposed with the same tool used to measure them. For that, we need assessments that engage students, encourage higher-order thinking, quickly diagnose misconceptions, and empower teachers and students with fast, actionable feedback.
We need not categorize students as deficient in order to justify improving the efficiency, depth, and enjoyment of their learning experiences. Assessment scores are finite, but learning is limitless. When we center student growth — rather than points or percentiles — as the goal of education, we expand the possibilities for how schools can provide value.
One final question
With ever-evolving technology and massive pandemic-induced education investments, there is little question about whether we can feasibly prioritize formative assessment. Instead, the operative question is this: Do our educational leaders have the imagination and courage to challenge institutional pressures that have made standardized summative assessments a dominating force?
Mounting evidence confirms that formative assessment is the best way to accelerate learning recovery. Now, it’s up to us to act accordingly.