“Testing” has become a dirty word in education in the last decade — but it needn’t be.

The politically charged climate of public education has cast a negative impression on the concept of testing because of the high-stakes nature of standardized tests like Indiana’s controversial ISTEP. To hear educators and others with a critical interest in public education talk, you’d think we all despised the very idea of assessment and accountability. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Done right, assessment is perhaps the most crucial piece of the educational puzzle. Done wrong, assessment is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, damaging to learning.

Before we dig deeper, let’s define some terms. There are two very different kinds of assessments, summative and formative.

The type of test most of you are likely thinking of are summative assessments. Summative assessments strike fear into the hearts of students because they are usually high stakes and often come at the end of a grading period when there is precious little they can do to recover from the results.

Summative tests assess what a student has learned over a period of time and they can make or break a grade — or in the case of ISTEP, they may be the difference between graduating and whether or not a school is seen as successful or not. Summative assessments are not worthless — most teachers give them at least once in a grading period — but they are the least useful in the sense that they are not used to improve learning, only measure it.

They are also only useful to the degree that they are fairly written and graded.

Done well, formative assessments are much more useful in providing the teacher and student with real-time feedback on exactly what the student has mastered and what needs remediation.

Formative assessments should happen on a much more frequent basis than summative assessments — perhaps even on a nearly daily basis. Formative assessments don’t have to be high stakes. In fact, they don’t even have to be graded at all. The point is not necessarily to reward or penalize a student for what they have or have not learned, but to gauge where they are in their learning and adjust instruction accordingly.

Done frequently, formative assessments should inform both student and teacher of just what the student has mastered and exactly what they need more time to master. Formative assessments don’t have to be anything as intimidating as a paper and pencil test — they certainly can be that, but they can take the form of anything a teacher can dream up to allow students to show what they know.

As long as a student knows what they are supposed to learn — the lesson’s objective — knows what is expected of them in order to show that they learned it, and receives timely and specific feedback to help them improve in areas they are lacking, it is a valid formative assessment.

The reason teachers tend to resent high-stakes standardized summative assessments like ISTEP isn’t because we don’t like assessing students. On the contrary, the reason is that tests like ISTEP tend to steal time away from our ability to give more frequent and more valuable formative assessments.

Assessing students should be used as a tool to increase their ability to learn, not stifle it.

Alexandria native Shane Phipps is an author and teacher in Indianapolis. His column appears Mondays in the Herald Bulletin. Email him at shphipps@gmail.com. Follow his blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/shanephipps and follow him on Twitter @shanehphipps

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