We regularly encounter curriculum that is engaging, creative and effective, followed by… a multiple choice quiz. What is there about assessment that seems to be off-limits to re-imagination? One possibility is that assessment is seen as the vegetable, not the entree, and certainly not the dessert. It is supposed to be good for you, a required part of a nutritious meal, but not necessarily the feature that anyone looks forward to. But just as vegetables have been rehabilitated (full disclosure: we are huge fans of broccoli), it is time to rebrand assessment.
The problem with quizzes and similar approaches is not only that they are unimaginative; it is also that, especially in the hands of the assessment-phobic, they tend to emphasize the least useful aspects of the learning experience, e.g., the identification of facts rather than the application of concepts. Multiple choice test can be effective, but by their very nature they shortchange students of the difficult and essential work of making sense for themselves of what they are learning. And most seriously, they treat assessment as separate from learning.
The risk of separating assessment from learning
Decoupling assessment from learning treats it as non-learning. It implies a linear and unintegrated process: first we teach you, then you show how much of what we have taught you have actually learned. This keeps agency in the hands of the instructor; it also guarantees a lack of alignment between what is taught, what is learned, and what is demonstrated. For this, among other reasons, backward design represents an essential shift.
It begins, rather than ends, with what students are expected to know and be able to do by the end of the learning experience. The curriculum and assessments are then aligned with those expectations. But wait, some will say — doesn’t that process encourage the dreaded “teaching to the test”?
“Teaching to the test” has become shorthand for everything that is considered lacking in contemporary education, especially at the K-12 level: the overemphasis on standardized testing and the consequent lack of attention to or outright banishment of subjects that are not included in those tests, such as art and music, even social studies and science. But the real problem with TTTT is that so many tests represent the lowest rung on the learning ladder. However, If the “test” asks learners not to remember and regurgitate what they have been taught, but rather to integrate and apply what they have learned, especially in the service of realistic problem solving, then preparing students for such a test is a good thing, not a bad one. And of course, assessment does not have to take the form of a test.
In future blogs, we’ll have more to say about the many forms “good assessment” can take. In the meantime, here are some principles for reimagining good assessment.