How Assessments Can Hurt Student Learning

  • November 2, 2022
  • Blog

Every district, school, and classroom teacher has to develop ways to understand student learning. In the wake of the pandemic, assessment needs are a top priority for many districts. Many districts are using federal stimulus funds to purchase interim and benchmark assessments. Before adopting new assessment systems, every classroom teacher and district leader needs to consider the purposes of the assessments that they adopt:

“What is the purpose of these assessments, and are these the best assessments for that purpose?”

Purposes of Assessment

Generally when we hear the word assessment we think of methods for understanding what students know and can do. This information serves many critical purposes:

  • Provide formative information to guide instructional decisions;
  • Provide feedback to the student to help further their own learning;
  • For grading purposes and to communicate with parents;
  • Information for teams to feed their collaborative work;
  • To ensure that groupings and curricula are serving the student as well as possible;
  • Accountability measures to determine the effectiveness of teachers, schools, and districts; and
  • Inform funding and human resource decisions across a district.

For school leadership, some assessments are more important than others. The state assessments, which are public and very visible, get a lot of attention from those with the most influence over the purchasing process. Therefore, over the past couple of decades a new purpose for assessments has arisen. Districts across the country are implementing assessments for the purpose of preparing students for the state assessment, not for providing accurate measures of learning. What is more important than providing high-quality information for the purposes listed above is their alignment in format and content with the state assessment.

More Interim and Benchmark Assessments

This year, more school districts are planning to use federal stimulus funds to adopt new interim and benchmark assessments. The right assessments could help leadership understand where to allocate resources this critical year, but the primary purpose of these interim and benchmark assessments is to help teachers prepare students for taking state tests. Assessments are selected because leaders feel they align with the format of the state test and therefore prepare students for that assessment.

The message teachers hear is that finding out what students know and can do is secondary; these assessments are a form of training. It is about learning to take a test. Take this example of an all-too-common conversation with a teacher discussing the district mandated interim assessments:

Me: “So, what I hear you saying is that you do not really like the assessments.”
Teacher: “No, because my students do not perform as well as I know they can.”
Me: “Then why do you assess in that way?”
Teacher: “The district is mandating these assessments, because they think that they will prepare the students for the state test.”

Teaching to the Test

If preparing for the format of the end-of-year state assessment is important, then be honest about your intentions. If the interface of an end of year assessment is an issue, take the time to teach students about the interface. Show students how to best navigate and respond within that context. Teach those skills explicitly rather than introducing kids to it while they are being assessed. If preparing students for high-stakes tests is the issue, then prepare them. And if you do take “practice tests” on some platform that is similar to your state test, then acknowledge that you are also assessing their ability to interact with that interface.

What is problematic is when we say we are assessing math, writing, or reading, when they are also practicing for another assessment.

Confusing Purposes

There is a problem when leadership confuses assessment purposes. By telling teachers that interim or benchmark assessments prepare students for another assessment, the district already recognized that the assessment in question does not allow students to accurately demonstrate what they have learned. If the assessment did, then students would not have to spend time “practicing” for the assessment in order for it to be effective. The assessment is an inaccurate measure of student learning. Nonetheless, it also is purportedly a measure of student learning that teachers will devote instructional and planning time to prepare for, discuss the results, and turn into instructional responses.

This problem is amplified when those same assessments are used for teacher evaluations. This means that teachers will begin to focus efforts on preparing students for navigating the interface of an assessment, so that they will perform better on another assessment. It is a desperate cycle, one that distracts, confuses, and causes stress and anxiety.

Unintended Consequences

When we introduce inaccurate measures of student learning, we introduce perverse incentives and unintended consequences in to our schools. Firstly, we introduce, “teaching to the test,” into our classrooms as discussed above. Secondly, we undermine confidence in our assessment and grading systems. That is because we share information about student learning information with teachers and parents that we know is not as accurate as it could be. If feedback is shared with students, we know this feedback is not entirely accurate. If teachers are meant to spend time discussing results with other instructional staff and communicate results to parents, they are also discussing student learning with compromised evidence.  Teachers see the results as invalid,  trust in the results corrodes, undermining decisive responses to the results.  When important decisions are made using these results, distrust is injected into the whole system and school culture.

As leaders choose and purchase systems to support assessment, their purpose and intentions should be clear. Are you choosing assessment systems to provide teachers with accurate information about what students know and can do? Or are you providing tools to train students to take the state test?

Focus on Student Learning

If accurately knowing what students know and can do is important, then we should use assessment practices that maximize that accuracy. When we assess students to help us understand what students know so that we can learn how we can best support learning, we should aspire to get the most accurate information possible.

When district leadership makes decisions about purchasing assessment tools, they should consider whether the systems promote practices that help students to demonstrate their knowledge and teachers better understand their students. It is not just fair, it is good for students. When assessments provide accurate, timely evidence of learning connected to classroom work, they have beneficial impacts on instruction, communication, and trust. The potential for learning is positively impacted. Positive impacts on learning also mean positive impacts on end-of-year tests. High-quality assessment practices that provide accurate insights into student thinking support higher quality instruction. In the end, these assessment practices that focus on the primary purpose of assessment — give students opportunities to demonstrate what they know and can do — lead to better outcomes for students.

Want to read more? Check out our other articles on the purposes of classroom assessment.


About the author: 

David Woodward is an educator with more than 25 years of experience as a classroom teacher, a district leader in math education, and a frequent presenter at conferences nationally. He founded Forefront Education to help educators better understand student learning with classroom assessments and support standards-based grading that is automatic, accurate, and reliable. David recently retired as a math coach at Boulder Valley School District in Colorado in June 2020. He is the leader of the Universal Screeners for Number Sense project, formerly known as the BVSD k-5 Math Screeners, a series of open-source assessments. Read more.

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