Since No Child Left Behind became federal law in the US, states have been required to test every child in every year from grade 3 through 8. The US is not alone in this high-stakes strategy. PISA test results have secured East Asia’s reputation is an educational juggernaut, while the rising suicide rate amongst teens has been a tragic consequence of the proliferation of high-stakes testing in India. In what follows I’ll briefly compare a school that does not engage in high-stakes testing, with one that does, with a focus on the uses and implications for students and teachers.
Since its founding in 2004, a secondary school located in northeastern China, and part of the IBO community, has not required students in grades 6 – 10 to take part in high-stakes testing. Instead, student progress has been determined by regularly structured formative and summative assessments throughout the school year. In addition, interim reports that indicate a students’ social and emotional progress are issued once per academic term. Failure, in the sense of repeating a grade, is not an option. The implications of this approach are mixed across the spectrum of stake-holders. Most students like the fact that an exam will not determine if they continue on to the next grade. Teachers like the flexibility of not “teaching to the test,” but rather tailoring instruction to meet the needs of a diverse student body. This results in a curriculum that is not typically, or exclusively content-driven. It also has resulted in a curriculum that sometimes uses standards to guide instructional decisions, but in no case do standards drive the learning process. While most parents appreciate a learning environment that validates the experience of childhood, there are some that would like to know where their child stands in relation to other students within the school, and across the globe. Next year they will find out.
Next year all grade 10 students will take part in an ‘e-Assessment’ designed to evaluate their learning across all subjects in comparison with grade 10 students across the globe. The exam is externally moderated by the IBO. In preparation for these changes, several innovations are currently being introduced. Most significant are changes to the curriculum. All teachers from grades 6-10 were required to take the ‘e-Assessment.’ They did this in groups, while taking note of the content and skills required to succeed. These notes will be compiled into a grade 10 learning outcome document. The curriculum for grades 6-10 will then be “backward mapped” to align with these grade 10 objectives. To ensure coherency of the skills progression, the Common Core standards will be used by all teachers to formulate learning objectives for each year, across all subjects. Teachers have already voiced concerns about “teaching to the test.” Based on the current changes, this seems to be an accurate assessment.
The important question is are the changes currently being introduced by the school a step in the right direction? To my mind, and this applies to high-stakes assessment more generally understood, a lot depends on the nature of the assessment. From what I gather, the e-Assessment targets skills over content, with an emphasis on problem-solving and real-world scenarios. If so, perhaps teaching towards these objectives is not such a bad thing. Moreover, in the case of the specific school being discussed, perhaps the introduction of skills and content standards will provide students and parents with clear expectations, which has been shown to improve learning. At the same time there is a philosophical problem with the use of a high-stakes assessment in a context that promotes process and multiple means to express understanding. The e-Assessment is a one-shot, one-size-fits-all model of evaluation. Perhaps one solution to this conundrum could be the use of portfolio assessments, as these would demonstrate the attainment of specific objectives, while also validating the process involved.