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Assessments: What They Are and What They Mean

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Updated on Jun 10, 2013

In today’s “get tough,” standards-driven schools, tests are all the rage. In fact, thanks to NCLB, they have become a seasonal ritual. Starting in second grade, students answer a battery of questions; a few months later, your kid’s scores come in the mail and, to many people’s chagrin, newspapers publish school scores and set off a flurry of articles. Then, just as everything seems to be settling down, the cycle begins again.

But, as teachers will tell you, these tests only give a ballpark estimate of what your child really knows, and they can actually be far off the mark. A kid with a low score may actually know much more than the test shows…and vice versa.

Here’s why: achievement tests rely overwhelmingly on “item selection” tests—what some students even laughingly call “multiple guess.” If you want to know the random facts in your kid’s head, these aren’t a bad measure. Many teachers use them for this purpose, especially in subjects like science, spelling, or social studies, in which students need to remember key information.

But lively thinking goes way beyond lists of facts. To borrow from teacher-talk, you need to use “multiple assessments” if you really want to know what your child knows and can do. This sounds fancy, but it’s really straightforward: you need to figure out what you want a child to know and be able to do, and then measure it by setting up a reasonable challenge.

The good news is that you don’t need to wait for report cards or computerized scores to ask how your child is doing. If you’re like most parents, for example, you’d like your fifth grader to be able to write. Standardized tests rarely give a full measure. Instead, try this: ask your kid to sit down and write a nice full-page note to grandma. Wonder if it’s decent work? Check it against materials coming home, or better yet, ask your teacher for “rubrics”—scoring scales that teachers commonly use to show kids how to judge their own work.

A final category of “tests” is called “performance assessment.” These are hands-on challenges closely tied to real-life tasks and situations. Do you wonder if your child is physically fit, for example? You’d never use a multiple choice test to find out. You’d say something like, “Hey, how fast can you run down the block?” The same philosophy applies to students. For instance, performance assessments are in play when students must apply physics knowledge by building a model pasta bridge and calculating maximum load, or learn history by re-enacting and dissecting a Supreme Court case like Brown v. Board. Because these assessments prepare kids well for real-life tasks, teachers use them more and more—and so can you.

So the next time you hear about a test, remember: scores can be helpful, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re all you need. Talk with your kids, look closely at your state’s education standards, and don’t hesitate to stay in close touch with your teacher, too. A good education is a richly nuanced experience. It’s only fair that assessments should be that way, too.

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