The Next Generation of Testing – No Testing At All

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

When is a test not a test? Apparently when you don’t realize that it is a test. That’s the conclusion that can be drawn from the Tweet by Scott Benson, the Program Officer for Next Generation Models at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:

Thinking about a future of education that does not include testing should bring a smile to everyone’s face who reads this tweet. There really isn’t much good about tests, test taking, or the pressure and stress that can surround a testing event.  Here is a quick look at the good and bad of testing and what evaluation of students might look like in a world freed from the shackles of it.

The Good about Testing
If you happen to be one of the lucky individuals who tests well, there is a lot that is good about testing. You can demonstrate your information recall abilities, garner some accolades from teachers, parents, and peers, secure admission into highly selective programs or schools, or even win scholarships and other monetary awards.

For educators, there is some use in validating that you are doing your job in terms of making students understand and remember the information you are presenting to them. If you are successful at preparing students for standardized testing there can be benefits such as praise from your administration and parents, raises, promotions, and increased funding for your school.

Politicians and other policy makers like testing because it provides justification for tracking students into specific educational paths and makes it easier to keep schools segregated along racial, ethnic, or economic lines. Additionally, testing can provide justification for reducing funding or closing "bad" schools or for rewarding successful schools (Guerrieri, 11 May, 2012).

The Bad
Tests and testing create a huge amount of stress for some students, school administration, parents, and teachers. There is so much wrapped up in testing that creates this stress – funding for schools, admission into the best preschools, K-12 schools, gifted programs, colleges, and graduate programs. Everyone taking a test understands these pressures to some extent, and that can be debilitating for some students, causing them to fail to perform despite knowing the material being tested (Firmin, Hwang, Copella & Clark, 2004). These failures can lead to feelings of learned helplessness, future failures, and eventual disenfranchisement. Essentially, high-stakes testing may be contributing to drop out rates and perpetuating artificial class divisions (Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, National Research Council, The Board on Testing and Assessment, 2012).

Heavy emphasis on testing can also narrow curriculum and exclude some content that otherwise could be covered. In addition to this curricular narrowing, tests generally push educators to limit the emphasis on other important skills such as problem solving, innovation, collaboration, and hands-on or problem-based learning (High-Stakes Testing = Negative Effects on Student Achievement, Hassard, 2011).

Finally, making a test is not easy or inexpensive. As a student of instructional design I studied test design and worked on a project evaluating standardized test questions for Indiana’s standardized K-12 tests. There are issues of validity and reliability that need to be accounted for when creating test questions that, if ignored can make any test a poor tool for measuring student learning.

Evaluating Without Testing
The natural questions sparked by Benson’s Tweet is "What does evaluation look like without testing?" and "Is there future possibility for the implementation of testless education?"  One possible future vision for testless education can be found in the idea of embedded assessment where evaluation of student progress happens as a naturally occurring part of the educational experience, rather than as a stress-inducing "event."

One model that can work to incorporate embedded assessment of students comes from the gamification movement and specifically from the Quest to Learn (Q2L) schools in New York and Chicago, where assessment is a natural part of the curriculum.

"Assessment at Quest to Learn is integrally connected to learning. This means understanding the needs of all students, defining explicit tools for assessment, creating opportunities for feedback and revision, and exposing students to data that can inform their own decision-making. Students and teachers use data as powerful tools to support each student’s ongoing potential for future learning. Longitudinal data on student development will be captured within multiple, overlapping systems, including an online social network space and annual portfolios. (Q2L, Key Features)
One of the key features of this model is that it gives learners the tools and information necessary to intelligently self-evaluate their own progress. Additionally, holistic assessment through portfolios and community-based interaction provide data points which can be used to triangulate student performance. Even in a world that never fully escapes from the political need for testing, implementing a system that assesses students (and by extension teachers, administrators, and schools) through multiple measures makes sense as a way of ensuring that the most accurate picture of student ability emerges. Some additional points of emphasis in this assessment model derived from Q2L are:

  • "Assessment is situated in learning—located in the discourse, actions, and transactions of individuals, peers, and groups.
  • An assessment program should be designed to allow learners to eventually assess themselves.
  • Assessments should measure the extent to which students can innovate within a domain.
  • Understanding students’ learning and the school’s effectiveness is best facilitated by data.
  • Smartools are a primary form of assessment: Students use data provided by smartools [] they themselves create to understand and use to meet their own learning goals.
  • Students are accountable to themselves, to their peer community, and to the school.
  • Success is mediated by continual reflection and evaluation of the school’s goals and mission.
  • Knowledge to be assessed emerges from engaged participation, reasoning, and resolution of Missions and their Quests.
  • Assessment tools support valid inferences about learning. Assessment tools must facilitate answers to the question: “What does a particular performance reveal about how students know, reason with, and use their knowledge?”
  • Assessment is dynamic: equitable and inclusive, meeting student needs before, during, after, and in between learning experiences.
  • Participatory assessment requires that expectations, co-constructed and delivered criteria, and documentation be ‘open source’ for all participants."
    (Q2L, Curriculum & Assessment)

These features point the way to a better, less stressful, and more balanced future of education. A future that does not rely on a single method for evaluating students, teachers, and schools, but rather utilizes all of the data available to make informed judgments about what is really going on in the classroom.

The gamification movement has the potential to transform the entire education system into something that more closely resembles the natural context in which children learn best and which inspires them to learn more. It is a model that is applicable at all levels of education (Marquis, 2012). and which meets the needs of society for producing self-motivated, self-assessing, adaptive learners who can become key contributors to a hi-tech, information-based economy. Using it as a way of removing or reducing the negative consequences associated with testing is just one added benefit of game-based learning. What are we waiting for?

Do you have an opinion on test and testing? Share it on Google+ or on Twitter with @drjwmarquis.