Learning Matters

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Purpose of Assessment

It's not that hard to find opposition for "testing." Kimberly has cited some examples over at Number 2 Pencil that simply amplify a widespread point of view. But when you ask someone their views on "assessment", a more positive response likely will be forthcoming. Very few parents or teachers believe in classrooms where there is no attempt to monitor student progress.

To me, testing is a form of assessment. It's a subset of assessment that has a very useful purpose as long as it is aligned with instructional objectives and the teacher receives individual results rapidly enough for diagnostic and formative uses. That is, to adjust instruction based on student progress as measured by several assessments.

For others, though, testing is seen as irrelevant to individual student learning and perhaps harmful. It's how some disparage assessment that they don't like. So when did testing become divorced from assessment and who wrote that memo?

Granted, standardized testing has its limitations. While you can assess mathematics very effectively, probably up through calculus, using multiple choice items, it is hard to assess language usage and reading beyond basic proficiency levels. Too often, standardized testing is developed with accountability in mind, not improving instruction for individual students. We see that in the awful delays involved in getting results back to teachers and families.

But it doesn't have to be that way. This is the 21st century and there is no reason why standardized assessment results cannot be processed in weeks, if not days. If we develop standardized assessments to serve both as formative and accountability assessments, insist that results be immediately provided to teachers, and provide teachers with the tools and training to integrate these results with their classroom assessments, then maybe testing and assessment won't be separated any more.

Is there a distinction between testing and assessment? What would you do to improve assessment in your state or in your school?

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