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Are We Obsessed with Assessment?

Gojak_Linda-100x140By NCTM President Linda M. Gojak
NCTM Summing Up, November 4, 2013

Although I have not been a classroom teacher for the past 12 years,  my work with teachers and my role as president of NCTM allow me to spend a great deal of time in schools and classrooms. I see firsthand the amount of time spent on testing students. I worry about the instructional time we lose when we spend so much time on testing. I worry about the pressure we put on students when so much of their time in schools is spent being tested. I worry that we have taken the joy out of teaching and learning in the name of accountability that can be determined “only” by giving more tests.

Assessment is a vital part of teaching practice. At the beginning of a unit, a pretest includes questions to provide us with information on whether students have the prerequisite skills for the upcoming topic and tells us what they already know about the topic. Using the data from pretests, we plan instruction that will meet our students’ needs. We quiz students throughout the unit to check their progress. At the end of the unit, we give a summative assessment to find out what students have learned and what they still need to work on. Assessment is appropriate when we use the data obtained through this sequence to plan instruction that ensures student success.

We do not need to depend on pencil-and-paper assessments. A variety of assessment strategies can provide teachers with the information they need about their students’ progress. Worthwhile formative assessment can happen when a teacher asks probing questions and pays close attention to student responses. A project that students complete at the end of a unit can represent both their conceptual and procedural knowledge and tell what they have learned—often better than a pencil-and-paper task. The good news is that more types of assessment, designed and controlled by the teacher, are finding their way into the mathematics classroom.

However, with the advent of high-stakes testing, the number of assessments we give students has greatly increased and their purpose has changed. Test preparation takes place in some classrooms every day, often consuming as much as one-quarter of instructional time. We teach to the test because we are told to. We have regular, building-wide testing days throughout the year. Often conducted in the name of “Common Formative Assessments,” these exercises can take the form of multiple-choice tests that are prepared by someone in the district. They may align with the pacing chart but often have little teacher input and provide teachers with little information about their students’ deep understanding of a concept. We give students tests to take home to practice for the “real” test. We have become a test-driven society!

It is time to have serious discussions about the purpose of assessment and its impact on the mathematics education of our students. The obsession with test preparation is more detrimental than helpful in ensuring student success and student motivation. Teachers need to collaborate with one another and with administrators to determine a testing policy and plan that supports their students and informs their instruction. We must be the voice that speaks on behalf of our students, focusing on meaningful learning rather than the pressure to perform.

I am not suggesting that we lower our standards for students. I am not suggesting that we eliminate good assessments. I am suggesting that we reexamine our obsession with test preparation and standardized tests that take days of instructional time, and that we carefully consider the impact this has on our students and on our teaching. No effective teacher wants to stop high-quality instruction to prepare for a test; rather, we know that high-quality instruction is the best test preparation we can give students.

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