My nephew, who is in elementary school, suffers from anxiety. When he was in third grade, in the days leading up to the high-stakes state exam, his teacher told his class that what they were about to do was so important that even the President of the United States would check to see how they performed.
This fire and brimstone approach to assessment has been going on for too long.
Just a few months after No Child Left Behind was passed, the Sacramento Bee reported that “test-related jitters, especially among young students, are so common that the Stanford-9 exam comes with instructions on what to do with a test booklet in case a student vomits on it.”
Rather than allow students to fear exams, we should use assessments in no-stakes or low-stakes settings to build confidence and strengthen learning. It’s time for us to realize the importance of using assessments to combat the anxiety of assessments.
Assessment of Learning
High-stakes exams are assessments of learning. They use a test to measure, record, and report on a student’s level of achievement in regards to specific learning expectations. Even though there are other types of assessment, this type appears to be the only one that we care about in education right now.
The numbers bear this out. In the six years after NCLB was passed, annual state spending on standardized tests rose from $423 million to almost $1.1 billion (a 160% increase compared to a 19.22% increase in inflation over the same period). American students may be the most tested kids in the world, taking more than 100 million standardized tests every year, according to Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City.
As an AP Literature and Composition teacher, my course ends with a high-stakes exam, but very little of what I do over the course of the year is direct test preparation. Instead, I use the other two forms of assessment — assessment as learning and assessment for learning — to guide instruction and empower students as learners.
Assessment as Learning
When you use an old exam in a no-stakes environment as a teaching tool to propel student learning, you’re using assessment as learning. Students use these exams to ask reflective questions and consider a range of strategies for performing and learning. Over time, students grow as learners because they’re involved in the process, evaluating work in comparison to the learning expectations.
I use assessment as learning to build better writers. Periodically, I provide my students with a range of writing samples and ask them to score them according to a rubric. This is a valuable learning tool because students recognize the performance expectations, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each essay among their peers, and come to identify their own areas of strength and need in light of the samples.
Another way to use an assessment as a learning tool is to give students a sample passage and ask them to develop their own multiple-choice or short-response questions that meet certain learning targets. Spending time looking at old exams or student samples rather than producing their own work may seem like time off task, but the evidence shows that it’s a considerable benefit, particularly for low-attainers.
Assessment for Learning
When you use an assessment to evaluate what students know to adapt future instruction and better meet student needs, you are assessing for learning. It’s like an exercise coach routinely weighing a client, taking measurements, tracking repetitions, and evaluating meals, all to tailor a plan that ensures the client arrives at a certain goal.
In my class, we have Multiple-Choice Mondays during the month of April, where my students take ten multiple-choice questions from old AP exams for practice, not a grade. It’s a weekly check, in a no-stress environment, of where they stand and I use the results each week to inform my teaching, recognizing the areas of weakness that can be improved upon and directing my instruction to meet those needs.
Because these alternate forms of assessment are no-stakes teaching tools, they’re sound instructional practices that focus student learning, empower students to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and provide a teacher with effective feedback to guide instruction.
Since I’ve become more aware of these other types of assessments, my students have felt more confident as they approach the exam and their results have connected with this confidence, resulting in a 20% increase in scores over the previous four years.
Yet, I still wonder where the line exists. Is this teaching to the test? Sometimes we label anything associated with a test as drill and kill. But what if it’s a worthwhile instructional practice? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Brian Sztabnik teachers AP Literature and Composition, Creative Writing, and Public Speaking at Miller Place High School in New York. His podcast, Talks with Teachers, has consistently been a top-ranked show on iTunes. He is the College Board Advisor for AP Literature and Composition, and won the Educators Voice Award in 2015 for Education Commentator/Blogger, given out by the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. He is the author of The Best Lesson Series: Literature. Follow him on Twitter: @talkswteachers.