Thursday, March 10, 2011

Can we reclaim assessment?

Each month, a group of faculty members from the two colleges involved in teacher education at GVSU meet to discuss issues related to teacher preparation and professional development. Because of my joint appointment I am a member of this group known as the Professional Teacher Education Advisory Council (PTEAC). Two months ago, a colleague from the English Department brought up the results from the recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) for us to discuss.
My two homes in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and the College of Education
Many of us were familiar with the results that suggest the United States is lagging behind other countries in education. Going beyond the results, we spent some time putting the data into context. (e.g. U.S. is much more diverse than top countries like Finland and Singapore.) I may come back to this point and what it means in another post, but for now, let’s just say that I see such comparisons as a distraction. Looking at sample PISA math questions, I can say that I want U.S. pupils to be able to answer them correctly. Whether they get more right than pupils in other countries is irrelevant.

A few weeks after this discussion, I attended a higher education conference put on by the GVSU Mathematics Department. One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Zalman Usiskin, opened the conference by addressing some of the same issues we had raised in PTEAC. While it was affirming to hear Dr. Usiskin’s presentation, I was inspired most by his words over lunch. He asked where I taught and I said at the university. He said, “You’re lucky then, because you have more freedom than K12 teachers. I don’t know why anyone would want to be a public school teacher under current conditions.” His words echoed in my head the rest of the conference.

During a panel session at the end of the conference, I listened as a parade of K12 mathematics teachers expressed their frustration with an educational system driven by standardized tests and their concerns about what the Common Core State Standards would add. Being a former middle school teacher I could empathize with their plight but I was somewhat disconnected now being in higher educations. It was then that Dr. Usiskin’s words hit me full force – I am lucky because of the freedom I have. What if I (and other teacher educators) used that freedom to provide cover for our K12 colleagues?

What I am proposing is that we reclaim the narrative related to assessment. Let the politicians and the newspapers have their standardized tests. We can reply, “Yes, those are the results and this is what they REALLY mean but they do not tell a complete story.” Here is where the collaboration between teacher educators and public schools comes into play. Teacher educators have the freedom and the resources available to help design reliable and valid assessments that assess the things local communities decide are important. Things like problem solving and critical thinking that cannot be easily assessed with a multiple-choice, standardized test.

What if schools came to colleges of education with a list of essential skills and processes they wanted to assess? What if the colleges of education used their experiences and resources to develop, implement, and analyzed the assessments? Could this provide the political cover schools need to reclaim the assessment narrative and return them to their proper role as preparers of democratic citizens (instead of test-prep factories)? Is this even possible? If so, then what comes next?


  1. This is the type of thinking that can begin to link K-12 with university-level educators in general. Right now, K-12 teachers feel they are getting hit from both sides - the general public and the universities that claim our kids aren't prepared when they come there. But in many cases, our K-12 teachers do not know what is even being taught on campus anymore. It's been awhile since many were in their freshman year. With no set standards for collegiate academics, how can we establish a stronger working relationship and move away from "us and them?" Perhaps your assessment ideas is a start.

  2. The authors of _The Teaching Gap_ propose training public school teachers to collaboratively conduct research in their own classrooms, and maybe this research training role could be taken on by universities. The premise is that research (and the attendant teacher learning) works best when it takes place in the same context in which the results will be implemented. What do you think of this approach?

  3. David,
    I agree. The blame game has to stop. As does the fighting over resource "scraps" thrown to educational entities by the state and federal governments. Now they want teachers to fight among themselves regarding who's most effective by eliminating rules that recognize that classroom experience matters. But I digress. The point is that we are all in this together.

    It is my hope that the partnerships between GVSU and Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids, and Muskegon built through the WKKF-WW Fellowship project will serve as a model of how K12 schools and universities can work together to improve teaching and learning. I don't know if it will be enough, however, unless we can offer a clear message about our academic achievement (accountability) that challenges the current monopoly held by the MEAP and MME. I'm not sure what the assessments would look like (it would depend on a district's goals) but I am willing to explore the possibilities.

  4. Shiftingphases,
    I am a huge fan of "The Teaching Gap" and it is the text we use in our seminar for preservice teachers engaged in their first field experience. Stigler and Hiebert's perspective that we need to shift from professional development as something that is done TO teachers to giving teachers ownership in developing the profession is at the heart of my philosophy of working with teachers. Dewey had it right. And when he left Chicago and was replaced by Educational Researchers with a top-down approach, I believe tremendous damage was done to our K12 system of education.

    That is why I believe districts need to have a say in what they want their learners to look like, when learners should look this way, and how learners should be assessed. Colleges of education should offer resources and support, not dictates. But the US has been slow to embrace a lesson study approach - why?

  5. David,

    Great thoughts, ideas, and concepts. We know that autonomy and purpose make a significant difference in successful businesses. In fact, there is sound research that has been replicated to illustrate this point ( One major hurtle will be media and policy makers. At some level, they have to be convinced that this is the way to enhance our K-12 education system. Otherwise, similarly to today, we will be putting out conflicting messages (media and policy makers "K-12 Public education is bad and needs fixing" while we are informing our communities of the quality that exists in public education. Thank you for continuing to fight the good fight. Nick

  6. Thanks, Nick. I love the Daniel Pink link. Have you seen his TED Talk?

    I agree with you regarding media and policy makers and their current messages offering an inaccurate view of what we are accomplishing in education. That is why I believe it is so important that we speak out. We need to offer alternatives, though, not just opposition.

    This is why I began blogging and tweeting. I want to provide a more accurate vision to the public. But that requires that we have data backing up our positions.

    So what assessment information would local schools like to gather about their learners' progress? How could universities support the data gathering and evaluation? Do K12 school need our resources, support, or both?

    Here's an example. We have a lot of preservice teachers that would profit from engaging in assessment and evaluation of real students. They could learn to gather data in valid ways. They could learn to analyze the results using methods that ensure reliability. I teach several course that I wish had real k12 learners that we could learn with together.

    Oh for a lab school! But that's for another post. What can we do next? What can we do now?

  7. I have to say that in Canada we do not have the focus on testing that is in the US, although it is definitely here. (for example, students in BC receive standardized tests in grade 4 and 7 in the elementary schools but these are not used for assessing students as much as it is about assessing schools - the results are not used in the students' grades.)

    Having said that, I love your thoughts about reclaiming assessment but I feel that there is FAR too much focus on Assessment OF Learning/Summative Assessment and not enough on the Assessment FOR Learning/Formative. I am a firm believer that if a teacher focuses on the formative assessment that is ongoing, coaching they will have a great picture of how a child is doing in their class. There is a still a role for the summative but I think we need to shift the balance toward formative (now I realize that many people in the US are data/accountability happy and this may be a tough sell in the US).

    I have been discussing Assessment For Learning with our local university and they are doing a good job with encouraging pre-service teachers to reflect upon current judgment practices of assessment. The focus, in my mind, needs to be the ongoing, descriptive feedback (teacher/peer/self) that is what happens in education beyond schooling.

    There is this idea that schools need to be accountable to their students. Tough to argue with that but the question is: when did schools and teachers STOP being accountable?

    So, I guess in my opinion, I love the steps you are describing and I would ADD that the University professors need to also work with K-12 to move away from the focus on grades, test scores, and data to one that focuses on feedback around learning. There is a role for data but this should kept in house so educators can use this to create better ways of working within the current system. Beyond traditional schooling and the current system, we all know there are no grades and test scores and very few multiple choice tests. Growth outside of schooling comes from constructive feedback that pushes us to reflect upon our current ideas.

    Not sure if I went too far in a different direction but just my thoughts... thank you for speaking out about this topic.

  8. We do need to reclaim the language. Education de-formers have stolen and bastardized a whole collection of our vocabulary. Accountability has become nothing more than a code word meaning more control for those outside of the classroom over the those who are in the classroom.

    Data has come to be nothing more than a term used to reduce learning to numbers.

    And assessment has been reduced to nothing more than a gatekeeper tool for the government to feed the bureaucracy.

    I see the issues revolving around public education as the civil rights movement for our generation, and until we refuse our cooperation with state-mandated, content-bloated curriculums and test and punish standardized testing regimes, nothing much will change.

  9. Joe and Chris,
    You both have it right. I want us to focus on TRUE formative assessment. Not more standardized testing masquerading as monitoring growth (the latest code-phrase replacement for accountability).

    As a teacher of teachers, I stress the need to use assessment to inform instruction and not the other way around. But I believe relationships need to be built in order to maintain the momentum. I want preservice teachers to work with inservice teachers to gather data about actual kids through formative assessments.

    The preservice teachers learn how to do it and why it is important. Already overworked inservice teachers are given support to do what they know is needed to ensure that real learning happens. And I have an authentic learning task for my preservice teachers. Win-Win-Win.

  10. I know I run the risk of playing with semantics, but I think when we use the word *data* we should say *information*. I fear that data has been bastardized to mean just numbers.

    And I agree that if we talked even half as much about making teachers better as we do about firing the bad ones, we would likely make some serious headway.

  11. Joe,
    I get your point and agree that we need to be careful about the words we use. (Peter Johnston wrote an excellent book called "Choice Words" that focus on this idea.) Because my research uses quantitative and qualitative data, I do not see data simply as numbers. But since others might, it is necessary to be explicit about it.

    Thanks for the great conversation.