Student Assessments That Work

By Linda Darling-Hammond

Student assessment has never been a hot subject with the media or the public, save for the scorecard-style reporting about winners and losers that grab headlines but rarely go below the surface to answer just what test scores represent. But that is changing. Student assessment is becoming a topic of conversation. It is spurring discussions about how and why we test students and what we do with the data from those assessments.

School boards will play critical roles in determining where that conversation goes in terms of public policy and student performance. And no one knows better than school board members the challenges that lie ahead.

Recent studies and expert panels underscore the importance of these evolving conversations and the high stakes we face for adequately preparing our students for a changing and complex world. Education is the economic issue of our day, and our assessments can drive instruction and learning so that we move forward.

But, just as the nation is poised for this progress, these same studies and experts sound alarms warning educators, policymakers, and the public not to back down from the challenges that lie ahead around student assessments.

Three challenges that come up most often are:

• Creating high-quality assessments that evaluate 21st century skills to replace current low-quality tests built on multiple-choice and fill-in-the-bubble questions.

• Investing wisely in assessment systems that can actually help improve teaching and learning.

• Making sure we use the assessments to support rather than punish students, teachers, and schools.

School board members are becoming engaged with these questions by the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 45 states and the District of Columbia. The standards are a state-led effort to add rigor to learning goals and help more students become college and career ready.

Assessments being developed to support the Common Core, including those by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), will be a big step toward measuring 21st century learning and skills.

Standards and assessments also are being revamped in states that have not adopted the Common Core standards, in an effort to better reflect the 21st century challenges our students will face. 

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