How is the “testing culture” changing our approach to formative assessment?

With the growth of the “testing culture” in education, I’m beginning to wonder if it is not starting to change our vocabulary for teaching and learning. Consider the idea of formative assessment.  From an instructional designer’s perspective, I often describe formative assessment (in contrast to summative assessment) in a particular way. I’m not sure where I first heard it, but some say that formative assessment is the check-up, where summative assessment is the autopsy. Formative assessment is about gaining feedback that can help one adjust the teaching and learning process while it is still happening.  It is about getting helpful data that can lead to changed behavior, strategies, methods, level of effort or something else that has a good chance of improving performance.  If there is a clear learning goal or objective, then formative assessments help the teacher to see how a given student is progressing toward that goal, what the student does or does not understand at a given moment. It also plays an important role for the learner so that she develops the ability to use that formative assessment to track her own understanding, and to use that information to decide how and what to do next in the learning process.

What concerns me is that, especially in some K-12 settings, there is a growing reliance upon tests and formal measures as the dominant form of formative (not just summative) assessment. This risks minimizing the power and value of the many quick and informal formative assessments that provide rich guidance and insight for teachers and learners: admission and exit tickets, think/pair/share activities, class discussions, simple checklists of observations during class, self-assessment checklists and rubrics, learning journals/logs, etc.  These can be done multiple time a day with minimal effort. The narrative forms in this list provide insight that one will rarely or never gain from using something like the MAPS test, which boasts of “fast accurate reporting- within 24 hours for teachers and 72 hours for building results…”   Such a test can be a helpful tool, but the informal formative assessments within a class help teachers get the know learners on a level of detail that is not possible with the more formal tests. They also help learners get to know themselves.  They do what qualitative research can do and what quantitative research can’t, providing rich descriptions that help to surface underlying reasons about what inspires students, scares them, encourages them, and baffles them. They give nearly real-time data that can help teachers and learners adjust.

My other concern is that many of these formal tools used for formative assessment focus upon the deficiency model of education. “Find out the gaps and deficiencies of learners so that you can fill them.”  In many contexts, that is good and essential to help students find success. In the process, it risks putting a hefty focus upon what students are unable to do.  The deficiency model of education argues that students will best learn if we point out their weaknesses and devote the majority of their time to fixing those weaknesses. This might result in gains, but often at the cost of not nurturing the passions and strengths of the learner (not to mention the learner’s motivation).  While weaknesses that hold us back must be addressed, there is another vision for learning, strength-based education, which seeks to discover a learner’s strengths and spend significant time helping the learners to lean into those strengths, building upon them, strengthening them even more.  Along the way, they can address some of the weaker areas.

Consider this first sentence in the Wikipedia entry for formative assessment: “Formative assessment or diagnostic testing is a range of formal and informal assessment procedures employed by teachers during the learning process to change teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment.” If you click on “diagnostic testing,” you get this: “A diagnostic test is any kind of medical test performed to aid in the diagnosis or detection of disease.” Where the formative assessment article dealt with teaching and learning contexts, the diagnostic test page deals with medical testing. This is a crowd-sourced encyclopedia and my role as a digital citizen is to figure out how to contribute to addressing this problem with the articles.  However, I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony of the current (as of writing this post) way that diagnostic testing is represented.  Diagnostic testing is about “diagnosing and detecting disease!” My concern is that this is precisely how the “testing culture” is leading us to think about student learning.  A student who performs “poorly” has a “learning “disease” that requires a treatment or intervention.

The use of formal (often norm-referenced) tests for formative assessment also has the limitation of measuring that which can be easily and quickly measured, and looking past important aspects of the learning process and experience that are difficult to get at with an automated grading tool. There is room for such tests, even as formative assessments, but it will be a significant loss for our students if we allow the term “formative” assessment to be redefined in the k-12 education vernacular as dealing primarily with the use of monthly or quarterly formal tests.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

2 thoughts on “How is the “testing culture” changing our approach to formative assessment?

  1. mhilgen

    I wholeheartedly agree! You’ve evaluated “testing mania” very well. The joys of learning cannot be measured by tests, but they can certainly be extinguished in today’s high stakes testing climate. I’m afraid that we will have about 10 more years of this insanity before it dawns on the “power brokers” that the high stakes testing approach has harmed not helped a generation of students. Plus, too many good teachers are leaving the classroom due to outside, artificial, testing pressures that have overshadowed the pure joy of teaching and learning with our students.

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