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Putting tests to the test: Is our reliance on tests enough?

Fostering effective formative assessment to inform applicable problem solving in students

I recently heard a friend ask his student a question that captures how parents and teachers should discuss future aspirations. The question was not “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Instead, he asked the boy, “What problems do you want to solve when you grow up?”

Today’s students will enter a workforce filled with jobs not yet fathomable, prompting students to identify problems they care about provides their education with a purpose that goes beyond job training. As our economy continues to evolve at a quickening pace, shifting the focus from position-specific to problem-specific grows more important each day.

How do we know if our K-12 schools are equipping students with skills to solve the problems they hope to solve, only using standardized exams? These high-stakes, summative exams reveal less about what an individual student knows, and more about our education system’s overall performance. One source of measurement does not tell me as a parent, or me as your child’s teacher, all that I need to know.

To better understand how—and if—teachers are equipping students to solve real-world problems, we must reflect on teaching practices through sound, formative assessment.

Formative assessment is not a new idea, but the credibility surrounding it is. The practice focuses on informing learning rather than only measuring it. It captures an ongoing, academically focused portrait, providing specific feedback on student performance throughout the learning process. In contrast, summative assessment utilizes data to provide information once learning is “complete.” Formative learning is powerful because it happens during the learning process, not at the end when the quiz is given. It is a key to individualized instruction because students are re-directed mid-lesson based on their own needs and performance.

Effective formative assessment relies on key drivers. Instructional planning must be based on learning goals with specific success criteria. Such expectations clearly communicate to students exactly how – and to what level – they should perform. Effective formative assessment also requires providing students with descriptive feedback, which creates  the opportunity for meaningful dialogue between parents and teachers. Imagine if a teacher gives a student feedback such as, “The second argument in your paragraph does not have any evidence from the article to support it. What portion of the article supports what you are arguing and how could you add that as evidence?” As a parent or as a student, it becomes clear what falls short and how to go about improving. Nothing is more frustrating than when a student is at a loss for how to improve performance. Connected to specific feedback is a third key to sound, formative assessment: planning for students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Students are set up to be more self-reliant learners because they know specifically what is expected of them and they know to what degree of success they are achieving while they are learning.

Implied in this process is one necessary resource: time. Some teachers have relied on technology to help monitor the work in classes with large numbers to virtually visit students at their desks as frequently as ongoing feedback demands. Others have used creative grouping in the classroom as a way to make sure students’ instruction is tailored more individually. But perhaps the greatest resource in the pursuit of ongoing formative assessment is the help of a student who has become a more engaged, independent learner. With the student as a partner, helping to diagnose the deficiencies and areas to refine, learning becomes a more efficient collaboration.

Conversation at our dinner tables can shift from “What did you learn in school today?” to “If you could solve one problem in society, what would it be?” and finally, “How did what you learned in school help you in that pursuit?”

Pamela Roggeman is the Academic Dean for the College of Education at University of Phoenix and served for more than 17 years as a  secondary education teacher. She is a proven academic leader in teacher preparation education and has extensive experience designing curriculum and preparing teachers in a university setting.