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Friday, September 16, 2005

Standards-based Education, Part II

This is a follow-up to my post of September 13. Today’s topic is also testing, but from a different POV: the use of “formative assessment”.

We all know that testing has four purposes:
  1. To provide feedback, both to the teacher and to the student, giving a snapshot of how the student is doing and how much s/he has learned. (For those who like euphemisms, we say that a test provides an opportunity for the student to demonstrate competence.)

  2. To create a learning experience that supplements classwork and homework.

  3. To furnish data that the teacher will use to calculate a grade.

  4. To satisfy requirements of colleges, the state of Massachusetts, and the No Child Left Behind act.
It’s not true, of course, that we all know this. I have always insisted on the importance of #2 and try to provide something new on each test so that students can learn something from taking it — but many people (students and teachers alike) reject this notion. Some colleagues have vehemently argued with me about it. In any case, the first two purposes are the ones we admire, and the last two are the ones we endure.

But in our Department meeting this week we all read an article by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, who argued for a fascinating variation on purpose #2:
...formative assessment produces significant student learning gains and...helps to narrow the achievement gap between low and high achievers.
Although a good editor could reducing the length of this article by about 50% and thereby greatly improve it, its research offers a potentially critical conclusion. Perhaps we finally have an answer here to the vexing question of how to narrow the achievement gap. (See my post of July 1.)

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