Parents Agree – Better Assessments, Less High-Stakes Testing
By Tim Walker
Educators aren’t alone in being fed up with narrow, punitive student accountability measures. Parents also want well-designed, timely assessments that monitor individual student performance and progress across a range of subjects and skills. That’s one of the key findings in a new study by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA).
NWEA, a non-profit educational services organization headquartered in Portland, set out to find how the views of parents – often ignored in the debate over the direction of public education – stacked up against those of teachers and administrators.
After conducting online surveys of more than 1,000 respondents, NWEA found that these stakeholders essentially want the same thing. Large majorities say that, although year-end tests might provide some sort of useful snapshot, they strongly prefer more timely formative assessments to track student progress and provide educators with the flexibility to adjust their instructionduring the school year.
“The research reinforces the notion that no one assessment can provide the breadth and depth of information needed to help students succeed,” explained Matt Chapman, president and CEO of NWEA. “For every child we need multiple measures of performance.”
As the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) slowly moves on Capitol Hill, redefining how student progress is measured will be a key debate. The National Education Association believes it is time to move beyond the No Child Left Behind Law (the 2001 revision of ESEA), scrap the obsession with high-stakes testing and enter into a new phase of education accountability.
“Well-designed assessment systems do have a critical role in student success,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “We should use assessments to help students evaluate their own strengths and needs, and help teachers improve their practice and provide extra help to the students who need it.”
“I use different types of assessments because all students are different,” explained Krista Vega, a middle school teacher in Maryland and NEA member who participated in the NWEA survey. “I use quizzes, games, teacher-made tests, computerized tests, portfolios, and alternative assignments.”
“What I’m looking for is, first, are they mastering the skill I’m trying to teach, or did they not master the skill? I’m looking to see if there is an area of weakness. I’m looking to see if they have background knowledge sometimes. There’s just a whole range of things that I’m looking for,” Vega said.
According to the survey, it is the types of formative assessments Vega identifies, such as quizzes, portfolios, homework and end-of-unit tests that provide timely data about individual student growth and achievement. Respondents cited these types of assessments as providing educators with the necessary information to pace the instruction and ensure students learn fundamental skills.
Parents are also worried about the narrowing of the curriculum. Large majorities believe it is important to measure students in math and English/language arts but also say it is important to measure performance in science, history, government and civics, and environmental literacy.
The students who are often hurt the most by a restricted curriculum are those who don’t have the opportunities, because of their socioeconomic background, to diversify their learning outside the classroom.
Beyond subject matter, parents and educators believe so-called “higher order” thinking skills such as creativity, communication, problem-solving, and collaboration – so critical in the modern economy and workplace – aren’t being properly measured by current assessment systems.
“It is really, really important,” Vega says “that we prepare students for when they enter the workforce to compete in the 21st century.”