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DEVELOPING ASSESSMENTS OF DEEPER LEARNING: New Report Examines Costs of Current Students Tests, Calls for Exams More Closely Aligned with College and a Career

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“Although they may appear low in costs, today’s testing programs are generally not organized to produce the benefits of deeper student learning found in high-performing countries,” the report reads. “Instead, we have a set of fragmented, disjointed efforts, unable to measure the most important learning goals, and not useful to teachers’ efforts to understand how their students think and what could be done to support their success.”

School districts and states must find affordable and feasible ways to improve student assessments so that they measure high-level skills and knowledge, a new report from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education finds. The report, Developing Assessments of Deeper Learning: The Costs and Benefits of Using Tests that Help Students Learn, provides data on what states and districts currently spend on tests; examines the failings of current multiple-choice tests; and analyzes the costs and opportunities of creating, implementing, and scoring assessments that ensure students are equipped with twenty-first-century competencies.

In order to measure “deeper learning” competencies—higher-order skills that students need to become ready for college and a career—the United States needs higher-quality assessments that are more open-ended and less reliant on inexpensive multiple-choice exams, the report notes.

“Although they may appear low in costs, today’s testing programs are generally not organized to produce the benefits of deeper student learning found in high-performing countries,” the report reads. “Instead, we have a set of fragmented, disjointed efforts, unable to measure the most important learning goals, and not useful to teachers’ efforts to understand how their students think and what could be done to support their success.”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—adopted by forty-six states and the District of Columbia—and the new assessments being created to accompany them, aim to improve teaching and learning by developing students’ abilities to think critically, analyze evidence, synthesize information, and communicate. Currently two state-level consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, are developing assessments that will measure the high-level skills expected of students under the CCSS. The report recommends that the United States draw from the work of these consortia to improve assessments.

The report identifies three challenges facing the implementation of new assessments: funding, time, and traditions. In the current fiscal climate, states may be hesitant to develop costly assessments that increase per-pupil spending. According to the report, many states budget approximately $20 per pupil for testing in math and reading—an amount equal to roughly two-tenths of 1 percent (.002) of average per-pupil spending on K–12 education, forcing states to rely on inexpensive multiple-choice tests.

“High-quality assessments have tended to cost more than lower-quality assessments, primarily because performance tasks and essays often require human scoring, whereas low-level skills can be measured with multiple-choice questions that are cheap to score,” the report explains. “From a cost-benefit perspective, this approach is penny wise and pound foolish. Constraining our assessments to instruments that can only measure low-level learning, and then tying decision making that will drive virtually all instructional efforts to what they measure, is a recipe for low-quality schooling.”

One way that states can mitigate assessment costs is through adopting digital technology in the form of online testing, the report notes. Even then, a high-quality test will always be more expensive, but the benefits of higher-quality assessments outweigh the costs, the report finds.

Although price tags on multiple-choice exams are low, the report argues that the resources currently spent on student testing—including teachers’ time preparing students to take them—could support much higher quality assessments, including performance tasks that include critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Because of current testing practices, students often miss out on instruction in topics and subjects that are untested, including writing, oral communications, extended problem solving, research, and investigation—all skills needed to succeed in college and a career. “The tangible expenditures on testing, as well as the costs to instruction, have not been considered in discussions of what kinds of assessment might be affordable as learning goals change,” the report notes.

Although the benefits of high-quality assessments are numerous, states and school districts need to see them as affordable and feasible before the nation can reap the rewards, the report notes. To do this, the report recommends that states and schools

  • develop a vision of a high-quality assessment system, including how it can operate to strengthen learning;
  • take advantage of cost savings associated with consortia and productive uses of technology;
  • involve teachers in scoring assessments in ways that also support teacher learning and improved instruction; and
  • be strategic about combining state and local resources to make sound, coherent investments in high-quality assessments.

“The question for policymakers has shifted from, ‘Can we afford assessments of deeper learning?’ to, ‘Can the United States afford not to have such high-quality assessments?’,” the report asks in its conclusion. “The answer is that assessments of deeper learning are needed to provide the impetus for students to develop skills for the knowledge economy, as a prerequisite for global competitiveness, and for the long-term well-being of the nation.”

The complete report is available at http://stanford.io/144hxMe.

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