Can Assessment Have a Positive Impact on Learning and Not be the Bane of Teachers' Existence? Yes. It Can.
So much has been written about the shortcomings and negative impact of standardized testing. Here are just a few articles one can stumble across with a quick web search:
- 34 Problems With Standardized Testing, Washington Post, 4/19/17
- The Case Against Standardized Testing, Harvard Political Review, 5/14/15
- Pass of Fail: Standardized Testing and Education Problems in the US, TheEdvocate, 4/13/17
Yet at the same time, as with many such controversial topics, one can also find articles espousing the value of testing and actually encouraging more of it! For example,
- Students Should be Tested More, not Less, The Atlantic, 1/21/14
- Sorry Kids, Schools Need More Testing, not Less, Vox.com, 1/31/17
So what gives? Are these just two radically opposite ends of a politically charged debate? Surely these seemingly contrary opinions can't peacefully co-exist. Or can they?
As it turns out, a closer examination of these articles and the thinking and research that informs them reveals that these are both (in this writer's opinion) valid positions. What it boils down to is that testing, when used properly, can be a powerful tool to help teachers teach and help students learn more effectively. On the contrary, standardized testing as it has been widely implemented, has many negative impacts and generally is questionable in terms of actual student learning.
Positive Testing Practices
Hilary Scharton is the VP of K-12 Product Strategy with Instructure (the makers of the hugely popular Canvas Learning Management System). I had a great conversation with Ms. Scharton recently, exploring the challenges and opportunities around testing practices. Scharton has written numerous articles in recent years illuminating research that supports the effectiveness of certain approaches to testing. In this recent eCampusNews piece, she writes:
“Testing can help students better retain and recall what they studied, not only for the final exam, but as part of their overall educational development. This is the “testing effect,” or the phenomenon where taking a quiz can enhance later retention of studied materials, and its effectiveness has been demonstrated many times over. Students who take quizzes shortly after they study show better performance on a final test relative to students who only study without taking a practice quiz, even when no feedback is given on the quiz (Roediger III, McDaniel, & McDermott, 2006).”
The testing effect is also known as “retrieval practice”. A quick Google search for either of these terms will produce a wealth of resources and research supporting the efficacy of the technique. Retrieval practice can also go well beyond just testing (this page from retrievalpractice.org provides further insight).
Another vital aspect of leveraging the testing effect is timeliness. Research indicates that, “Giving a quiz immediately after learning new materials can halt the forgetting process and improve comprehension,” writes Scharton.
Another fundamental concept in good testing versus bad testing is the use of Formative versus Summative Testing. The Atlantic article provided above covers this powerful idea. Article author Jessica Lahey writes, “Formative testing at its best is low-stakes and high-frequency. When students are used to the practice of being tested (or “quizzed,” if that term carries less baggage) it loses its emotional teeth and its utility as an educational tool begins to emerge.”
Getting the Most out of Good Testing Practices with a Best-in-Breed Assessment Management System
As schools and educators come to understand and move towards more positive and useful testing practices, they may need to address inefficiencies in terms of the systems used to administer testing. Known as “Assessment Management Systems” (or “AMS”), these types of platforms can help to improve on the usefulness of the data generated through testing.
This 2013 article from Oakleaf, Belinger, and Graham offers these key considerations for selecting an AMS:
- Integration capabilities
- Disaggregation (ihe ability to group data ranging from institutional level down to the school or college or individual student level)
- Ease of Use
- Interactivity (how many will use it for what purposes?)
Instructure launched their AMS, Gauge, in 2017, and partnered with Broward County School District (the 6th largest public school district in the US) to put their recently released platform to the test. Goals included faster delivery of test results and data, increased use of formative testing, a ease of use (with a more sophisticated test design engine).
Hilary Scharton explained that feedback from the Broward partnership has indicated that teachers find the platform easy to use and that it helps them save time in creating, delivering and assessing test results. This has enabled them to focus more time on other activities (including putting that testing feedback to use). Formal results from the partnership are expected to follow soon.
Getting to Know Gauge
The brief video below provides a quick overview of Gauge.
For a deeper dive, this video captures Jason Sparks' presentation of Gauge at Instructure's 2017 conference. Sparks demonstrates Gauge live.
Much thanks to Hilary Scharton for taking the time to discuss testing and assessment systems with EmergingEdTech, and introduce us to the Gauge AMS platform.