Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Wiggins: "Testing & Whining"

You wouldn't expect Grant Wiggins to have anything positive to say about standardized testing. After all, Wiggins (of Understanding by Design fame) has been the champion of authentic assessment for decades, commonly pointing out the inefficiencies of multiple choice. Imagine my surprise when I read this from his Testing & Whining post:

What do you learn from looking at all these tests? Two utterly counter-intuitive facts. 1) The bulk of the test questions are not factoids but perfectly reasonable questions that only someone who had learned with understanding could answer correctly. (The exception, not surprisingly, is History). 2) The hardest questions are the questions that require understanding - transfer of prior learning. This is especially true in math and reading. The hardest questions in Florida on the reading test involved identifying main idea or author purpose.

I'm not sure I fully agree with the statement above. The questions I see on the ITBS indeed are not factoids, but they also are not tied to a curriculum. They are very heavy in inferential thinking (even in the "history" section), and it's a leap to say "only someone who had learned with understanding could answer correctly". Learned what? Last I checked, the main premise around the Iowa Core and every school's curriculum was a whole lot more than inferential thinking.

But there is an important thought in what he says. Many opponents of standardized testing argue it is the lowest level of thinking required. This isn't true... it actually requires more cognition in the "comprehension" and "application" levels than in the "knowledge" level. And what is more important, this is in stark contrast to locally-made (i.e. teacher-created) tests:

Most local assessment, ironically, is of poorer quality - mostly simple factoids and plug and chug skills being sought. Few people disagree with this claim in workshops. Indeed, they typically wince and nod in agreement.

I can't agree more. Here's the true danger in our current assessment in Iowa schools: too many unit tests serving as all-knowing assessments that look for a student's memorization of the bold-face vocabulary words and "things to remember for the test" from the day's-before review session.

This is a fair warning for us not to make a straw man out of standardized testing. We need standardized testing to be able to know how students are mastering the curriculum. We need their technical accuracy and reliability, and yes, we need accountability. It just should be in the form of authentic measurements, not multiple choice.

Related posts on authentic assessments:
Call for Action: Authentic Standardized Assessment
Program Evaluation of 1:1 Environments
NAEP Assessment for Technology?
Tony Wagner in the Des Moines Register

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