What should we be using to measure student achievement besides standardized testing?

There’s more to education than what can be measured by multiple-choice tests, and understanding is not the same as rote memorization. Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, called America’s obsession with standardized testing a “frenzy,” noting that “... in this country, we have made the mistake of equating academic accountability with testing — typically, the short-answer, machine-scored test. But many other forms of accountability exist.” He believes that “the means of assessment should follow from, rather than dictate, the ways in which we educate students,” and calls for performance-based assessments, which would offer a stronger “collective educational vision.”


Robyn Scott, Educational Consultant, TutorNerds LLC

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For a person, of any age, to teach a subject, they must truly understand it. If students in Upper Elementary, Middle and High School can switch roles with the teacher (for a day) and can successfully present to the class, the teacher will know if her/his students fully absorbed the material. One way to 'test' if the presenter has a full grasp of the material is to ask follow up questions that s/he may not have memorized. Questions regarding dates can be easily forgotten (especially if the young presenter is nervous) but inquiries about concepts and cause and effect will help the teacher know if the students are really getting it.

Students can easily learn to 'beat' a standardized test but comprehensive, multi-sensory (think visual and oral presentations) require real learning.

Jessica Sillers, Homeschool grad, creative writer

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As someone who grew up with a lot of input into my own education and who now works in a creative field, I'd rather see almost any measure of achievement besides multiple-choice or short-answer standardized testing. Long-form assignments, whether they be essays, experiment-based scientific projects, or goal-oriented tasks (such as coding a functioning web page), seem to me to offer much greater insight into a student's dedication, innovation, and problem-solving ability. I would prefer to see students evaluated using models designed to test critical thinking and outsmart memorization. For example, asking students to interpret a painting they've never seen before by using skills they developed to understand use of symbolism would be a valuable critical thinking measure.

Lindsay Merbaum, Writing Is the Way

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It's hard to underestimate the value of students' writing. Though teachers certainly need to instruct students in the proper structure and formatting of an essay--from topic sentences to semicolons--the way an applicant expresses his/her ideas on paper tells you much more than what kind of English teacher he/she has had. Consider critical thinking skills. Consider the ability to synthesize information, to a tell a story in a compelling way, even to express empathy. How a student views the world--and his place in it--is not accessible through grades and test scores. If we want to evaluate applicants as whole people with ideas, feelings, and something to contribute to our academic communities, the best way to do that is through the written word. That is why colleges with excellent writing programs like Sarah Lawrence and Bard either do not accept test scores or do not weigh them as heavily as other institutions do. They're on to something, and hopefully other schools will follow suit.

Alexander Baack, Founder/Director, Altadena Free School and Force Education Project

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As the great John Taylor Gatto has said, the only thing a test shows is how well someone can take a test. The entire concept not only implies a deep mistrust of any individual's ability or even potential to self actualize, it all but likely ensures the individual will never put into practice any act of self diagnosis, responsibility or objective assessment. The idea that we can ever observe and tally what knowledge has been absorbed by a human mind, let alone the vast complexity of potential application of that knowledge is a phenomenon of mass delusion. Add to that the futility of trying to determine what "knowledge" is most important to transmit to each of the millions of children attempting to grow of their own volition without the coercive interference that runs counter to all human instinct, and we've arrived at the existential crisis of autonomous thought that exists around the world as I type these words.

Patricia F. Hess, Associate Director, Internship Quest; Adjunct professor, and author

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Standardized tests are not the only way to evaluate learning especially for students in high school. Getting out of the classroom and into the real world with an internship or senior project not only gives students real work experience but also gives them an opportunity to tackle new tasks to show what they learned.

Getting students to demonstrate what they learned and evaluating this learning using clear criteria is just as effective a measurement of learning as any standardized test.

Does taking a Social Studies exam show learning better than the student demonstrating how he helped an elected official’s constituents solve housing problems? Does writing an essay that only a teacher will read show more skill than writing and publishing a series of articles or briefs for a newspaper or online news service? Does taking a test on laboratory procedures show higher learning than a student showing how she can read slides to assist in diagnosing pets in a small animal clinic? Or is writing an essay on computer coding more valuable than designing a website that will benefit a local nonprofit organization in doing its work better?

We need to value all the different ways students learn and value different ways of evaluating that learning. Students want to learn and want to show what they have learned and they know that standardized tests do not give them that opportunity.

Amy McElroy, Writer, Editor, Writing Coach, and Parent of two

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In response to Lindsay's answer, some recent reform of K-12 standardized testing already includes the addition of essays and more critical thinking-type questions.

For example, the Smarter Balanced Assessment will be administered in 17 states and the Virgin Islands for the first time in the 2014-2015 school year. According to the website, http://www.smarterbalanced.org/about/member-states/, "Smarter Balanced assessments will go beyond multiple-choice questions to include extended response and technology enhanced items, as well as performance tasks that allow students to demonstrate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills."

My daughter's K-8 school in California just completed the Smarter Balanced Assessment, and she wrote multiple essays as a 7th grader.

As indicated on the Smarter Balanced website, standardized testing must also address issues of "bias and insensitivity."

Elizabeth Mack, Community College Writing Center Consultant, English Instructor, Writer

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Research has proven that multiple-choice exams are actually the least effective form by which to measure student learning. Educators are beginning to understand the importance of individual learning styles – some students learn best by listening, some by reading, some by doing, etc. – so it makes sense to incorporate more than one way to assess if actual learning has taken place.

Tests are only one way to measure learning outcomes, and are often more about what instructors have provided than what students can demonstrate they have learned. Incorporating presentations, oral exams, and written finals in conjunction with written exams will allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and not their test-taking skills.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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Standardized testing is an "efficient" way to assess students, so the argument goes. And when a university admits thousands of students a year, they rely on such measures. But we know that the tests can be biased against minorities. In a perfect world, we would use portfolios, student interviews, resumes, letters of recommendation (though it does seem that these are overused already. Is anyone even reading these letters that I produce by the dozens????), and essays to assess students. But those things all take time--and therefore they take money. Until we actually care enough about our education system to fund it well, we will have to rely on these kinds of standardized measures to assess. As a young teacher, I found Alfie Kohn's book on the subject useful in forming my ideas about the tests I had to administer to my students. His words are still relevant, perhaps even more so.

Alexander Baack, Founder/Director, Altadena Free School and Force Education Project

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The very concept of "student achievement" begs the question, "What is education for?" Who is it that defines "achievement" and who is it that determines what has been achieved, for what purpose and for how long? It is my view, as well as the view of some of the most important thinkers in history, that it is folly to attempt to measure the intellectual and emotional growth of a young human being. The school system is a creation of the industrial revolution and operates brilliantly to feed that socio-economic reality. Measures of student "achievement" are nothing more than arbitrary labeling of human beings for a list of types of jobs that need filling. The question shouldn't be how to measure students but how to dismantle the mass factory system that prevents each of them from knowing and measuring themselves.

M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher

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There were several great and interesting answers to this question by the experts above, and I agree with some and disagree with others. I do agree that writing is a huge component of learning that such a high percentage of students struggle with in an extreme way. Although standardized tests (like the Smarter Balanced assessment) do include writing, as did previous tests, the kind of writing tends to be very basic, and often times the topics are not very interesting, and certainly not of the students' choosing, or at times even in the neighborhood of where their thoughts and interests are rooted. That's why I am a bigger advocate of project-based learning, both in terms of writing, and also for other assessments such as oral presentation, research, community service and market research, etc. By immersing themselves in projects, students naturally become much more involved and interested in their work than sitting in a room with a timer, and being read a long list of boring instructions, then racing a stopwatch to finish. They also have a limited number of materials at their disposal when performing standardized tests, and I know for a fact many of them LIKE to do research and consult multiple sources when reporting on a topic. I mentioned oral presentation, and I also love acting and improvisational techniques as a way for students to express themselves, and these can be assessed equally well. As can the creation of videos, short films, book trailers, and powerpoint presentations that necessitate the use of images and various sound and video imaging programs. These are all valuable assessed skills. And especially in the field of science, there are countless outdoor projects that can be implemented to demonstrate mastery of certain concepts. Then the writing aspect of creating reports based on the results they have found, and/or testing the validity of their hypotheses are valuable assessment in and of themselves, as are building a robot or programming in a computer language like Java, etc. There are infinite other ways to assess students, but the issue always comes back to the "basics," and this is what we do need to know that students can prove they have mastered. Is the standardized test the best way to show this? Probably not, but I do understand why we use them to sift out the masses and the sheer population of all the students involved. A daunting task indeed.

Matthew Clemens, Physics and Math Teacher, Parent, and Tutor

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Different disciplines have better ways to assess understanding. However, most of them are very time consuming, an issue our overcrowded public schools must reckon with. For example, I want to be sure I know the students understand the process instead of just getting the "right" answer, so asking students to show work and show the process is a great tool for knowing what students do and do not understand, though this process is time consuming to a degree that can lead many teachers to go back toward just testing for the right answer. Offering students a variety of ways to approach a project based on their learning styles is also a great way--and labor-intensive--mode of assessment.

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