Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Richardson: Rethink Assessment

This was written by Will Richardson who is a parent, author, speaker and educator who has been writing about the intersection of social networks and learning for the past decade, most recently at WillRichardson.com. He blogs here and tweets here. This is an excerpt from his book Why School?

by Will Richardson

With few exceptions, all the things our children are using to connect and learn outside the classroom -- social media, cell phones, Internet connections -- are banned inside classrooms. In my kids' case (and they have more access than many), school is the only place in their lives where they can't use the technology they carry around in their pockets and backpacks to answer questions.

The only place. Why is that?

Those of us who have shifted our learning lives to online networks and communities know the potential power that resides there. Education author Jay Cross says, "Knowledge is moving from the individual to the individual and his contacts." That couldn't be truer in this abundantly networked world. It's not what I know, it's what we know. And my reality is that I would suddenly become much dumber if you told me I had to disconnect when seeking answers or solving problems.
This Will Be on the Test

Remaking assessment starts with this: stop asking questions on tests that can be answered by a Google search. Or, if you have to ask them, let kids use their technology to answer them. More often than not, we ask questions that can be easily answered by technology. That is unfortunate.

Take a quick look at any of the state standardized tests for graduation, and you'll see more of those than you can imagine.

For instance, from the New York State Regents global history and geography test:

"Which geographic feature impacted the development of the Gupta Empire?"

No lie, this was a question every potential graduate in New York State was supposed to answer in 2011. I'm not sure about you, but I'd never even heard of the Gupta Empire.

The answer choices were: a) island location; b) volcanoes; c) monsoons; and d) permafrost.

Let's be serious for a second. Can you think of any reason why this little tidbit would be important for your son or daughter to have stored away in his or her brain, aside from needing it for the test? And if I announced that I had a free iPad for the first person who emailed me the correct answer, what would you do right now?

I don't even have to answer that. 
These are the questions we ask when we're operating as if information were scarce. Our tests are loaded with questions whose answers almost everyone is guaranteed to forget as soon as the test is over. I'm not saying there might not be some profound learning we can take away from the story of the Gupta Empire (which was, according to Wikipedia, an Indian dynasty that was the model for classical civilization). But I am saying that we don't take anything away from answering a question like that, except for wondering whether we got it right or wrong. (The correct answer for the question above, by the way, is c) monsoons.)

The effects of assessments like these have implications far beyond their impact on our students. The problems with standardized tests are summed up quite well by Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon:
By imposing upon schools and teachers unrealistic, meaningless, and arbitrary goals, high-stakes testing has corrupted the spirit of American education, intoxicated the education environment, and demoralized educators. By forcing schools and teachers to teach to the test, it has narrowed the educational experiences of millions of children and thus deprived our children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, of a real education. It has wasted valuable, precious, and dwindling public funds that could have been put into educating rather than testing our children. It has generated unnecessary fear, anxiety, and loss of confidence in our children. It has distracted us from addressing the real challenges facing education today: poverty, globalization, and technological changes. It has taken away the opportunities and resources for exploring innovations that may lead to true improvements in education. But most importantly, it has eroded the traditional strengths of American education that have made America the world's center of innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, and democracy.
Instead, let's make sure that at least some of the questions we ask our students on assessments require them to tap into the vast storehouses of information that reside online as well as the networks of people who can help them sort out the answers. For instance, what if we asked (and only if it were worth asking), "In what ways have the inventions and works of the Gupta Empire had an influence on our modern culture?" That's a bit different from making a choice from a list. It would require an ability to think critically about the world. And it would be most complete if it also tested for a student's ability to access the resources and experts now available online.

In other words, let's scrap open-book tests, zoom past open-phone tests asking Googleable questions, and advance to open-network tests that measure not just how well kids answer a question, but also how literate they are at discerning good information from bad and tapping into the experts and networks that can inform those answers. This is how they'll take the real-life information and knowledge tests that come their way, and it would tell us much more about our children's preparedness for a world of data abundance.

Let’s also shift our assessments of students' mastery to ones that examine mastery in action. Performance-based assessments, where students actually have to do something with what they know, tell us volumes more about their readiness for life than bubble sheets or contrived essays.

No question, these types of assessments are more inefficient, subjective and time-consuming than the traditional variety. But they're worth it.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The Regents example Will Richardson chose is an interesting one and, I think, good example of how well-constructed state tests audit understanding. I was a social studies teacher, too, and I don't know anything about the Gupta empire, but I'm a pretty good thinker and I know a bit of geography. The same can be said about our more capable and thoughtful high-school students.

    "Gupta" sounds like it's from India, so that takes "permafrost" off the table as an answer. And given that India isn't in the ring of fire, it also probably eliminates "volcanoes." And I know that an "empire" is an extended landholding, so "island location" doesn't make much sense. That leaves us with "monsoons," which is the correct answer.

    What's the real problem here? I don't think it's the test question. Instead, I think it's mindless classroom test prep in which students are drilled endlessly on facts and discrete skills and never asked to puzzle through anything. We're unwittingly sending the message that learning is about storing information and then spitting it back.

    In this case, it's likely that the test makers know that only a handful of students would know the answer. And many-- those drilled in recall-- would give up immediately because they don't. But students who have learned to draw upon what they know to see if they can answer an unfamiliar question might well puzzle it out, as long as they can identify "Gupta" as an Indian-sounding name and "empire" as an extended area.

    Ironically, the question Will Richardson suggests instead, "In what ways have the inventions and works of the Gupta Empire had an influence on our modern culture?" actually requires students to know a fair amount of information about that elusive empire. While exploring the question in class might well be fruitful, as a test question on a state test, it's ineffective.

    I, too, worry about testing, but I worry more about what well-meaning classroom teachers do in the service of "test prep." In the case of this item, the drilling of facts that so often masquerades as teaching and learning would have produced students utterly unequipped to respond correctly.
    But thoughtfulness around an essential question like, "How can I use what I know to figure out what I don't know?" might yield students who can think critically and creatively, and occasionally answer a question about an empire they've never heard of.

  3. I am with you that we should give problems that ask our students to be true problem solvers, and not simply regurgitate answers. We have also spend waaay to much money on testing, which simply does not make our students any more enlightened, and probably discourages learning. However, students should be totally dependent on technology to find encyclopedia type questions. What would happen if there were not google, no world wide web?, Or even worse, what if google, youtube, etc. when the search algorithms are written "censored" information that would benefit us. I think we need to have some level of basic knowledge in addition to being able to apply knowledge.

  4. This reflects a well known industry or business adage which is what gets measured gets done Therefore, we need to what gets measured from a convergent system of meaningless facts to something which rewards divergence and thinking and reflection and understanding and insight about life and its challenges and problems. I have been promoting the concept of learning by doing real things that are needed by society for over 10 years now. Patience we shall get there!


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