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The Great Testing Debate: Making the Grade

Tests today are not like the tests most parents took when they were in school. New forms of evaluating students' work are already in use, and even more changes will be coming in the years ahead. The broad term "assessment" has come into common use to describe these new ways of measuring students' accomplishments.

Tests and assessments perform several vital roles in the education process. They are used most frequently to help students, teachers, schools, and parents know what students have learned and what they still need to study. Teachers can use information from assessments to design lessons that meet the needs of their students. School districts and states use assessment results to evaluate whether they are meeting their goals. Assessments also are used by policy-makers for accountability—to help gauge the effectiveness of programs and schools. Finally, assessments are helpful for transitions. They can show if students are ready to begin a new grade level, or to enter a particular college. Tests are sometimes used—along with other information—to help decide if students should be placed in special programs.

Parents should educate themselves about the tests and other assessments that are used in evaluating their children's progress. For tests and assessments to be most effective, parents need to be informed and to understand the types of assessments that can be used.


Performance assessments

Increasingly, schools are now using performance assessments, which measure a student's ability to do an actual task, such as playing a piece of music or conducting a chemistry experiment. The strength of this approach to testing is that it focuses directly on complex performances and the knowledge and skills required to accomplish them. Some of the disadvantages of performance assessments are that they are seen as difficult and costly to score and require a great amount of classroom time.

Portfolios are one type of performance assessment that is becoming increasingly popular in schools. Portfolios, which contain samples of students' work, can be used to gather information about what students can do over a long period of time. A writing portfolio, for example, might include a series of story drafts, while a science portfolio might include a collection of lab reports. This approach allows students, teachers, and parents to analyze students' progress and see how their work has changed over time. Portfolios can be difficult to score, but they contain a lot of important information. Some states already have portfolio assessments in place to evaluate students' work in a subject over an entire year.


Standardized tests

Standardized aptitude and achievement tests still have a major influence on what students are taught. The movement toward education standards will probably see such tests continue to have a significant effect on education—if not an even greater effect than ever before. Parents should advocate for tests that are integrated into the curriculum. They should also be aware of the dangers of test bias; questions on tests might unfairly favor one gender or racial group. There are screening procedures for identifying and eliminating possible sources of test bias. Schools should use only those standardized test that have been examined for those biases.

No test gives a complete picture of a student's knowledge, ability, or aptitude. And test results don't explain why students score as they do. Parents should work with their children's teachers and look at all of the assessment information available to them to get an accurate picture of how their children are doing in school.

As assessments continue to change, parent involvement is extremely important. Assessments can help pinpoint problems, but they can't solve them. Parents, along with teachers, must make sure that assessments are used as they should be—as an aid to the learning process. A good assessment program should be part of an overall educational plan that focuses on critical thinking skills as well as factual knowledge.