Assessment in teaching and learning: Where are we now?

A Nation at Risk

In 1983, then US President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education published the report "A Nation at Risk: the Imperative for Educational Reform," setting off a frenzy of reform movements that still abound in the American system. report_card_nation_at_risk_j.jpgAmong other recommendations, the Commission advocated for more solid, foundational learning; higher standards and a grading system that accurately reflected a student's readiness for the next level of study; a longer school day and year; and an increase in salary and training for teachers. Twenty-five years later, the non-partisan committee Strong American Schools (2008) examined progress toward meeting the goals laid out by the Commission. In their publication A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students are Still at Risk they found that rather than improving, the American education system is declining, especially when compared to other high-achieving nations. Knowing what to do has not been the problem - having the will to do it has. The executive summary states, "We have enough common-sense ideas, backed by decades of research, to significantly improve American schools. The missing ingredient isn't even educational at all. It's political...Without vigorous national leadership to improve education, states and local school systems simply cannot overcome the obstacles to making the big changes necessary to significantly improve our nation's K-12 schools."

"High stakes" testing has not worked

What followed A Nation at Risk was an explosion of high-stakes testing tied to state standards. Education reform advocate Alfie Kohn (2000) noted that the massive amounts of "high stakes" tests that the US currently gives to students to measure schools' successes and failures intending to improve them has instead made matters much worse for the students the tests were meant to help. He argues that schools in high-poverty neighborhoods and/or with high numbers of traditionally under served students are further punished for a variety of reasons. Kohn points out:
  • The tests may be biased. Racial differences in achievement show even when other factors are removed.
  • Test preparation varies. More affluent families can afford extra-curricular test-preparation courses, especially for high-stakes college entrance and placement exams.
  • Quality of instruction declines. Due to the focus on discrete facts, students in poorer schools tend to get "drill and kill" instruction designed for higher test scores rather than actual learning.
  • Inequitable funding. Ignoring social factors that contribute to low-achievement in high-poverty areas could be better mitigated with more funding in the form of long-term, developmental funding rather than quick grants for specific reforms of the day.
  • Underachievers will be driven out rather than pushed ahead. When faced with the prospect of "failing" a graduate exit exam, many struggling students will give up rather than hang around for the inevitable.

The US continues to struggle with federal and state policies that inhibit true innovation, but we can learn from our years of research on what works and see examples of what practices will move us forward. One place to start is with examining countries that have been successful and determine what they have done as a means to help us envision a future with a highly successful educational system supported with and enhanced by digital technologies of the future.

Current International Assessments of Learning

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) administers the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment given to 15-year-olds that "assesses how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society." (2009) Rather than simple recall of facts, the assessment seeks to understand how well students at the end of their compulsory education can apply what they have learned in new settings. See the video below for a more complete description of PISA.



The assessment is given every three years and the results often set up a debate about where and why certain countries score where they did. In 2010, the results showed that countries scoring highest on PISA were Shanghai, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, Canada, Japan and New Zealand. The US scored 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th math. The question US researchers are asking is what is it about the education systems in those countries that has led them to excel.

A strong national curriculum and performance-based assessment

Stanford professor and author of The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future
Linda Darling-Hammond outlines her research on what the US needs to do to catch up. In this (fairly low quality) video Linda Darling-Hammond (2008) describes international practices of performance based assessment that she believes are the key.


According to her research, the high-achieving nations have educational systems that are composed of the following:
  • A lean curriculum focused on deep understanding and higher order skills.
  • Performance assessments to guide and gauge progress with expansions of classroom-based assessments as part of the formal system.
  • Lower stakes, higher standards.
  • Massive investments in initial teacher education and school-level teacher support.
  • Equitable spending, with extra investments in high-need schools and students.

The systems all have explicit national curricula and standards and a system of local, teacher-created performance tasks to help individual schools and towns understand where the students are toward meeting those standards, and where the teachers and students need to focus for improvement.

Assessment in higher education

In the introduction to Rethinking assessment in higher education: Learning for the longer term, editors David Boud and Nancy Falchikov (2007) describe assessment as being extremely important in guiding students' learning by focusing importance on what the professor has deemed important and providing a place to focus study and investigation. Rather than doing that, they found that assessment practices "are often focused on students demonstrating current knowledge, generating material for grading and getting (often inadequate) feedback from teachers." They found that, stepping back to look at the recent literature, professors in higher education need to "focus on what studying in higher education is arguably for: that is, providing a foundation for a lifetime of learning and work in which there is little formal assessment or formal instruction."

The Future of High-Stakes Assessment

While US policy makers do not fully embrace the radical changes that Darling-Hammond and others advocate, we are currently in the process of re-structuring the high-stakes assessments with which schools are judged. Two assessment consortia, SMARTER Balanced and PARCC are working with partner states to create Computer Adaptive Testing that will replace the current tests. The two systems will each follow the guidelines set by the federal government:
  • Assessments will be common across the states that they serve (Illinois is in PARCC, California in SMARTER Balanced).
  • The assessments are founded in assessing skills students will need for success in college and career, and will contain performance-based problems.
  • The assessments will be computer based for ease of administering and reporting.
  • The assessments will provide timely information that will allow for transparent reporting and will inform effective decisions to improve student outcomes.

While both systems use technology, PARCC is computer-based (all students get the same set of questions) whereas SMARTER Balanced is computer adaptive - the questions will come up according to the answers that students give, adapting to the apparent skill level of the students. Both are set to launch in the 2014-2015 school year.

Questions remain

The new assessment systems, based on a common core curriculum, are a step in the right direction, but questions remain, as pointed out by Juaquin Tomayo (2010). First, the technology infrastructures needed by both systems need to be coordinated and maintained to a certain level for the assessments to work. This could be difficult in the less affluent districts. In addition, new systems for data management and aligning results to teacher training and supervision. And finally, a common system will need collaboration and coordination between and among districts and schools in a way not previously seen in the US.

Next: Formative Assessment