Reforming Assessment

Reforming Assessment

Danielle Buckner

California State University, Monterey Bay


The United States is failing in assessing teaching and learning, especially in comparison with several foreign countries.  The issue with assessment is not necessarily how we assess, although that is a large component of it, but primarily how teachers are teaching in their classrooms.  We need to reform who is in charge of classrooms and give control back to teachers.  Innovative approaches to assessment need to begin in classrooms.  We need to blend several ideas together in which we use low-stakes testing for very limited assessment needs, such as to compare and moderate standards, but not for funding and accountability.  Another component of the new assessment blend needs to include referencing students’ prior knowledge to allow them to solve complex problems in order to develop their critical thinking skills.  Finally, teachers should use creative ways of utilizing student work and teacher observation, such as portfolios, in the assessment of students and teachers.


Reforming Assessment

            Assessment is a term many are not truly familiar with.  When educators discuss assessing a student, they mean passing out standardized tests, during which students have to sit still, be quiet, and fill in bubbles on a piece of paper, usually limiting them to one answer.  However, assessment is not only comprised of tests, but also feedback, projects, discussions, etc.  The United States is failing in assessing teaching and learning, especially in comparison to several foreign countries (e.g. Finland).  Our nation falling behind in this assessment is critical because our current ways of assessment do not give accurate insight as to what each student knows or what they can do.  There is never one correct answer in real world problems, so why are our students being tested with multiple choice questions, in which only one answer is correct?  It is important our country provide a better education for all students in order to assist them in developing their critical thinking skills needed in today’s society.   Who is our current way of assessing benefitting?  It certainly is not our students.

Stakeholder Groups

Before taking standardized tests, students typically buy a textbook, maybe a practice book also, and skim through the important tools in those books.  Those books are huge, thus costing more money to produce.  If standardized testing was abolished, students would no longer need to buy those books, but that would be detrimental to the companies who thrive off students’ money.  Reflect back on how many tests you would take a year, including practice tests.  If these tests were abolished, testing companies would lose out on money they receive for providing unnecessary materials.  These are just two businesses that benefit from standardized testing.  In order to understand why our nation wastes so much money on these types of assessment we must look into how standardized testing came about and why.

History of Assessment

In 1983, a report on educational reform, A Nation at Risk, was published.  This report criticized the educational policies in place at the time and called for “‘more rigorous and measurable standards’ for learning” (Graham, 2013).  A Nation at Risk started huge reforms in education.  One reform, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, was implemented by President George W. Bush in 2001 (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).  This act has drastically harmed schools, especially low-income schools and districts.  The NCLB Act uses standardized testing as an evaluation of how well teachers are teaching and how much students know.  Schools that achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) receive federal funding while schools that do not lose funding.  This has put low-income schools even further down on achievement scores as they do not have enough money needed to achieve higher scores to begin with and every year they receive less.  Although the NCLB Act was meant to raise achievement, “the U.S. has fallen further behind on international assessments of student learning since the law was passed in 2001” (Darling-Hammond & McCloskey, 2008, p.263).  This discovery has led to the current conditions in education which spurred a new discussion topic for reform: the Common Core State Standards.

Current Situation

The Common Core State Standards are the current action plan in education for the United States.  The idea behind them is to get all students on the same level of knowledge across each state in our country.  The standards for each grade level are meant to be comparable to grade levels across the world.  The goal is to have U.S. students on the same educational level as students from higher achieving countries.  This is clearly seen in the Common Core mission statement:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy. (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2012)

The Common Core is a new way of teaching in which the control of the curriculum and ways to teach are given back to the teachers, schools, and districts instead of the government.  Along with the Common Core is the Race to the Top campaign.  This promotes schools to “[lead] the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform” in order to receive certain additional funds (U.S. Department of Education, 2013, “Program description”).  The states that win these funds “will help trail-blaze effective reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country to follow” (U.S. Department of Education, 2013, “Program description”).  Although this reform plan sounds beneficial in theory, there is still a major problem with our nation’s education and it is not necessarily about what is being taught in our schools, but how we are teaching.

In most U.S. classrooms you will find the students facing the front of the classroom quietly taking notes and listening to the teacher who is located at the front of the room. The teacher provides information in the “banking method” of teaching in which the teacher “deposits” knowledge to students, who then memorize and repeat back the knowledge in the exact way that the teacher wants to hear it (Friere, 2005, p.72).  This style of teaching is not comparable to other nations and this is a major reason for our students not measuring up to the same standards as students in other nations.

New Assessment Options

In order to solve our assessment crises we need to change how teachers are teaching in classrooms.  Potential actions we can take to start resolving issues are using students’ prior knowledge to transfer to new and critical concepts, or transferability (Wiggins, 2006); incorporate portfolios of students’ work instead of standardized testing; or use small amounts of low-stakes testing to assess teachers and schools (Common core assessments, n.d.). These are just a few options I found interesting.  Of course there are several other options available.

Influentials and Targets

            Influentials.  Each of these action plans have different influentials and targets.  The influentials in transferability, currently, are the teachers, districts, and states.  Depending on what district or state a teacher is working in, s/he has the option of how to facilitate learning in his/her classroom.  In cases where the teachers are given the standards to teach, but given no specifics on how to teach them, teachers can greatly implement transferability.  In order to do this, the teachers will need to be confident that their students are at a level of knowledge in which they can be given a slightly more difficult problem to work through and work it out amongst themselves with other members in the class or individually.

The influentials for creating portfolios of students’ work are the teachers, once again. Teachers will need to make extra time to write reflections about each student and any observations they should note for parents and the students to see individually.

Finally, the influentials for low-stakes testing are the government, which includes voting members of society, politicians, school board leaders, etc.  People who vote to strengthen and promote standardized testing to hold schools and teachers accountable directly influence the decision to keep standardized testing in place.

Targets.  The targets of transferability are the students.  By implementing transferability into classrooms, students will be encouraged to talk with others, to work out real world problems they may encounter, and to do so in a way that works for them, not prescribed ways as previously discussed in the banking method.

The targets for the portfolio approach are the students and their parents.  Parents will be involved in this process as teachers would send the portfolios home for discussion with their student to bridge the connection between home and school.

The targets of low-stakes testing are the students, teachers, and schools.  If students do poorly, they may be required to take additional tests, in some schools they lose privileges, and if a school overall does poorly then the school loses funding which further hinders students.  Teachers are targets of low-stakes testing in that they are pressured to teach test taking strategies to help their students pass tests rather than teaching students important critical thinking skills they could utilize in real world problems.


These actions need to be critically evaluated before implementing any of them into classrooms.  Below is a chart that easily shows the potency, reach, time, and cost of each action plan on a scale of one to ten, with ten being high.  This chart shows how transferability is time consuming and may not reach all students equally, but does not contribute any great costs to the budgets already allotted for schools.  This chart also shows how portfolios are time consuming as well, but will reach all students and will not contribute to additional costs.  Low-stakes testing is shown to reach a limited amount of students, consume great amounts of time, and is costly.    Finally, this chart shows that transferability and portfolios are strong options while low-stakes testing is not as strong.


In evaluating these options, I have found transferability also relates to “authentic assessment” in which “students are tested on their ability to ‘do’ the subject in context, to transfer their learning effectively” (Wiggins, 2006).  This “radical idea” of “more assessment, not less” is not exactly the way I see transferability being needed (Wiggins, 2006).  However, there is a benefit to this in that if the assessments are more relatable to real world problems and require critical thinking to solve them, then these tests may be extremely beneficial.  This leads to how other countries assess their students.

In Finland and Sweden, students are given assessments in which the questions are problems that require a written answer, not multiple choice, and requires the students to describe their reasoning (Darling-Hammond & McCloskey, 2008).  This way of assessment gives students an opportunity to reason through problems they may encounter in the real world, outside of the classroom.  However, this way of testing is also a low-stakes test because students’ grades have a small component based off of how well they score.

In low-stakes testing, students’ performance on the tests can be used as a component to their grades, as mentioned previously. However, low-stakes testing can also be used by the federal and state governments to allocate funds to schools that perform better.  This can also be beneficial, if we reverse this way of thinking and send the schools who performed poorly the funds, since they are the schools who need more help, not less.  Another consequence of this way of testing is “the negative consequences land most heavily on low-income students, those of color or with a disability, and English language learners” (Common core assessments, n.d.).


My recommendation for future educators is to implement a blend of all these ideas.  I agree with Wiggins (2006) that “the more students receive challenging, interesting work demands, the better they do on simple measures.”  Therefore, we need to develop students into critical thinkers so students are able to do better on simple tests.  This transferability of their prior knowledge of critical thinking applied to several real world problems is necessary in our education systems.

Context and Assumptions

Throughout my research, I found portfolios are a wonderful tool that can be utilized to assess students across a state or country and to assess how well teachers are observing and working with their students by sending portfolios to a “regional panel for moderation” (Darling-Hammond & McCloskey, 2008, p. 268).  However, throughout my investigations I have made the assumption that our schools have not limited the creativity in students already instilled in them, as bell hooks has suggested (Burke, 2004).  I am also assuming all teachers in our nation want to take the time to let students think out answers to problems on their own without the teacher’s direct help for a while and that teachers would be thrilled to create a portfolio for every student.  I understand that many of these options are, in reality, not going to be accepted by everyone.

In addition to the assumptions I have made, the influentials and targets mentioned earlier in this text, are also making assumptions.  Some of the assumptions they make include that assessments currently in place are working, but our teachers are becoming lazier and not educating students as well.  Another assumption is all forms of standardized testing and formal assessments are pointless as they do not help assess anything.


My position comes from the concessions the other ideas provided, which influenced me to want to incorporate more beneficial educational assessments.  For example, low-stakes testing could be used to help a graduating senior in high school show his/her qualities or for schools to be assessed, but without linking funding to those tests so as to not punish them.


My position also has limitations.  For one, transferability can only be utilized if the students are all on the same level of education.  If they are not, then there is a “greater likelihood that only the already-proficient students will succeed” (Wiggins, 2006).

Another limitation, in regards to portfolios, is teachers may not have time to spend on creating portfolios and writing down their observations for each child.   Some teachers may come up with a better process of assessing students and can use that in moderating standards.

Potential Negative Outcomes

On top of the limitations, there can also be negative outcomes.  At least one possible negative outcome in result of my position could be parents feel that their children are not being properly educated if the teacher is not always standing in front of the classroom lecturing, as teachers have always done.  Parents may not see the benefit in giving students time to work on a problem before giving them a way of solving it.


In conclusion, I still believe working to change assessments in and out of classrooms is necessary in order to improve where we stand in education within the world.  Despite the limitations and potential negative outcomes, I think transferability is important in helping students learn to critical think through real world issues.  I also believe portfolios or progress reports are a more effective way to assess students and teachers because it is almost like looking through a window into the classroom.  Even with the concessions of the low-stakes testing, I do not believe low-stakes testing should be used for accountability.  It is beneficial to see how schools are performing in relation to others, but these tests should not be used to determine funding or for assessing how well teachers taught.


Through my recommendation, I am reflecting the values of allowing teachers the freedom to teach their classrooms, parental involvement, and instilling critical thinking in our future generations of citizens.  All of these are important in developing an education system comparable to others around the world.  This is beneficial so students can be successful anywhere within their global community.


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