Effectively assessing student progress has caused many a headache among educators over the years, especially amid rising concerns of over-testing and "teaching to the test" that come with annual high-stakes standardized exams mandated by federal policy.
The simple truth is that not every student is good at performing well in that format. As a quote commonly attributed to Albert Einstein goes, "If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." Thus, educators have made considerable effort in recent years to rethink assessment in a way that is more equitable and accessible.
To gain more insight, we asked four school and district leaders to share their greatest assessment challenges.
Mike Meechin - Principal, NeoCity Academy (Kissimmee, FL)
"One of the biggest challenges around assessment is authenticity. How do we ensure that the assessments that we provide in schools are authentic? We sometimes are so caught up on the outside impact of standardized assessment that we forget that, in the real-world, many of our students are not going to be presented with multiple choice options.
Our assessments must prepare them for inquiry — for the ability to critically think and problem-solve. An area that I think is sometimes completely forgotten with regard to assessment is the ability for students to collaborate. In real world work environments, our students will be completing projects in groups — not in isolation. So how can we better model authenticity in our assessments? It is a real challenge."
Susan Kessler - Executive Principal, Hunters Lane High School (Nashville, TN)
"The greatest challenge with assessment is avoiding educational malpractice by buying into the myth that an assessment can adequately report the entire picture when it comes to what a student is learning or how he or she is growing. Administrators must ensure that schools teach the curriculum for the purpose of ensuring student learning, as opposed to teaching for the purpose of scoring well on an assessment. Some standardized assessments are poorly aligned with the curriculum, and that puts the student and school at a huge disadvantage because of the over-reliance on standardized tests to adequately report student learning and school quality.
We must resist the temptation to think that because we can assess something, it means that we value it more. Because, in reality, students learn thousands of things every year in schools that aren’t or can’t be measured on a standardized assessment. It is so easy to get it backwards.
Imagine if we took a child to a doctor and the physician was only interested in height, weight and head circumference and neglected to listen to the child’s heart and lungs. Without working lungs, there is no life. It’s easier to measure height, but that doesn’t make it more important. Student learning should be assessed through a variety of modes using multiple opportunities and not a reliance on how a student performs on one type of assessment."
Richard Gordon IV - Principal, Paul Robeson High School (Philadelphia, PA)
"The biggest challenge I have seen my school face is not so much the administration of assessments, but overcoming the malaise that the blight of poverty has over students’ engagement in their own learning. In urban school settings, many schools are tiered off between magnet school and traditional neighborhood school programs. The perception is that students who qualify to attend magnet school programs have an intrinsic motivation to complete and succeed on all assessments administered by these schools. Whereas students who attend traditional neighborhood high school programs, which usually have a denser population of students living below the poverty line, struggle to see the relevance of assessments in schools, given the day-to-day circumstances students face and deem more important.
There are many factors that contribute to students’ ability to discover success in schools. But, the intricacies of those factors are interwoven into the complex circumstances existing in the impoverished households many of our students live in. It is causing our students to be overly stressed, terribly distracted by numerous family and adult issues that are thrust upon them. Hence, these factors minimize the need and relevance of success in school, let alone on assessments that have little meaning to changing the very circumstances with which our families are struggling.
It is my belief that these factors have a great impact of stress on students who struggle with living in poverty, which can contribute to lower test scores for schools with higher percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Thus, assessments across the board in traditional neighborhood school programs with higher concentrations of impoverished families receive lower evaluations from state and district officials, and, in turn, this data is used to determine the fate of these schools — especially if the test scores continue to decrease.
With the most vulnerable students experiencing a lack of parent/family engagement, a lack of resources at home, and receiving fewer resources due to inequitable local and state resources, it has become increasingly challenging to not only get students to be successful on standardized tests, but also to get students and families to see the value and relevance of positive test results on their personal lives. Perhaps there isn’t a direct correlation between poverty and poor test scores, but I do believe there is a strong causation between the percentage of schools with free and reduced lunches that receive low local and state evaluations based on standardized test scores."
Glenn Robbins - Superintendent, Tabernacle School District (NJ)
"The biggest challenge is valuing student-led capstones, projects, productions and/or internal assessments at a higher level, instead of traditional standardized tests. Our staff can instantly assess students and provide them with the proper guidance that they need to grow, instead of waiting months for a private company’s test results, which cost millions of dollars and provides little information in return."