Magical Discovery or Big Brother Watching? Six Questions to Assess Student Assessments.

Earlier this week, the De Blasio Administration proposed universal assessments for NYC schools. Will this truly help children post-pandemic? Test-makers often paint a picture of technology magically telling us all we need to know about our children. It may sound too good to be true. It is.

In a moment, I will offer six guiding questions that I’d ask school and district leaders to consider when contemplating universal assessments. But first, a few words on where this stems from.

In twenty years working with schools, I have been told more than once that teachers’ efforts to improve student learning had to pause for the month of January and June “because we have to focus on the tests.”

I have spoken with students who relate the consuming anxiety that led to their reasonable decision to “not show” at school on the day of assessments.

I have spoken with my 11-year-old son after a bad grade on a quiz, meticulously analyzing, through tears, how the teachers, the instructions, and the computers were each to blame.

But in twenty years working with schools, I have also sat on panels where student entrepreneur teams proudly presented business plans they had developed to sell products they designed. I have reviewed data with principals who used it to rearrange their first-period classes to improve student engagement. I have interviewed focus groups of students who related how their speaking skills had enabled them to more critically address their relationships with friends.

The magic of assessment can be the kind that reveals hidden doves waiting to be released, or the kind that turns Mr. Rogers into Big Brother.

At its heart, assessment in the context of schools should accomplish two things: it should provide useful information about learning and it should support learning. To see if assessments are doing that, I pose six questions below. Well-designed assessments will get positive answers on all six. Standardized tests, the current go-to for state and district assessments get, at best, three.

1. Does the assessment ask students to demonstrate skills that matter?

Assessments should focus on essential skills. This includes reading, writing, and math, all tested by typical standardized assessments like PARCC or MAP.

But these are not the only skills that matter. In fact, employers and an equitable democracy depend on other skills that were better reflected in those student entrepreneur team presentations I mentioned earlier: collaboration, critical consciousness, self-management, self-advocacy.

2. Does the assessment motivate curiosity alongside task completion?

Curiosity and inquiry are at the heart of learning, a point driven home by a great new book by Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski. The cutting-edge research by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang at CANDLE makes clear that our brains need mental space to be curious, separate from the mental space to be task-oriented.

On this point, an important note: Whether you want them to or not, assessments shape the culture of schools; yet, too often we seem to act as if they do not. Traditional standardized tests create cultures of task completion. This crowds out space for cultivating curiosity. On the other hand, performance assessments approaches like those developed by the New York City Consortium ask students to creatively explore and analyze a topic they choose with the teacher. This can do a lot more to motivate curiosity while also practicing task completion.

3. Does the assessment enable positive student-adult relationships?

Caring, credible teachers are an incredibly powerful predictor of student engagement and success in learning. Good assessments will affect this important relationship in a positive way.

As disappointing as it is for anyone who wants easily scalable solutions, here’s another critical note: Human relationships are not, in fact, easily scalable. Any test developed by a state or national entity and then handed whole cloth to ten thousand educators is more likely to challenge human relationships.

Instead, how about assessments like the ones tested by Chris Hulleman and Judith Hariewicz that ask students to reflect on how learning in a class provides them a sense of purpose? Assessments like the interviews I had with students reflecting on their speaking skills give an entry point to student-adult relationships in ways others do not.

4. Will the assessment inform policy makers who want to know how our schools are doing?

One of the chief reasons the De Blasio Administration and most other government entities want assessment data is to officially know how schools are performing. Fair enough. To do this well, test data should be easy to quantify, aggregate, and analyze.

Typical standardized assessments are good at this. They take kernels of knowledge and skill and turn them into numbers that can be aggregated and compared. We can see numbers on how White and Black and Asian students are doing, how poor and rich students are doing. These numbers make policy makers happy and importantly can help shine light on progress and need for improvement. Do we need to know every score for every student with pinpoint precision? Assessments that spend too much energy on this to the exclusion (and, perhaps, direct detriment) of the five other criteria listed here are doing more damage than good.

5. Will the assessment inform educators quickly and effectively?

Arguably, the most important people for assessments to inform are not policy makers but rather educators who are tasked with helping students. If we trust educators, then assessments should quickly get them information they can use. They need to: a) know what is in the assessments, b) teach curriculum that connects with it, and c) get information on how their students did within, say, five days of administration.

If you are a parent, ask your child’s teachers whether this is true. Heck, ask even if you are a principal or a district leader. The difference between a yes or no answer on this is the difference between feeling like you are monitored by Mother Teresa or by Vladimir Putin.

6. Will the assessment inform families supportively and responsively?

Families need information to know what capacities their children have, what they are improving, and why. To be clear: This is a different audience than policy makers or educators.

I personally have never seen a report generated by a professionally designed assessment that does this. This is no offense to the professionals; they just don’t know my son personally.

Instead, I have seen this kind of reporting when my child’s teachers wrote narratives describing what he was doing in class and how he could improve. For all the competency ratings given in his report card, it was that strength-based, forward-looking narrative that informed me as a parent.

I am a white, middle-class parent who has navigated the education system before. In our diverse city and school system, a culturally sustaining approach must take into account families from different cultures, with different levels of familiarity with the system, different degrees of trust earned from the education system and society as a whole, and various home languages.

I know I have raised more questions than answers here. So let me end on this note: Remember when there were protests across the country, when a reality-show TV star was president, and when there was all that talk about never going back to “normal”? Current federal law has required for the last 18 years that every student be assessed, and we know what “normal” assessments look like.

Let’s not have our “universal assessments” be a return to normal. Let’s transform.

Founder of Eskolta School Research & Design. Education reformer, husband & father living in New York City.