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Beyond the Bubble Test: How Will We Measure Learning in the Future?

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New technology-based assessments will replace standardized bubble tests.

Last September, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced: "Today is a great day! I have looked forward to this day for a long time--and so have America's teachers, parents, students, and school leaders."

Duncan was excited about a new way of testing students, one that goes "beyond the bubble test," the standardized assessments students take every year that have long been criticized as not only useless in measuring any kind of real learning, but actually detrimental to the entire education system.

Ask most teachers, and you'll hear a litany of reasons why they detest these assessments. They contend the current tests have no bearing on student learning. They waste time that could be better spent in class (the former president of United Teachers Los Angeles, "dismisses the weeks before spring testing as 'Bubbling-In 101,'" according to a Los Angeles Times article.) They complain about having to teach to the tests, leaving them little time to try new ways of engaging students. And in some states, teachers are evaluated based on those very scores.

With stakes so high, teachers, parents, and school administrators are watching the developments of the new tests closely. The actual details of what these new assessments will look like is being revealed along the way-- and it's extremely complicated. In brief, two separate groups -- Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium -- are using the federal government's Race to the Top Funds to come up with the new testing systems, which will be used by different states. (You can read much more about the details in this recent story in Education Week.)

Both groups will create tests using technology in both administering and scoring and will measure "performance-based tasks, designed to designed to mirror complex, real-world situations," according to the New York Times.


"In performance-based tasks, which are increasingly common in tests administered by the military and in other fields, students are given a problem — they could be told, for example, to pretend they are a mayor who needs to reduce a city’s pollution — and must sift through a portfolio of tools and write analytically about how they would use them to solve the problem," the article explains.

There are high expectations for the new tests. Last month, a who's-who of educators and education experts published an open letter outlining what's at stake:

If done correctly, the shift from pencil-and-paper to online assessments will build upon this opportunity to transform the nation’s education system and provide a platform for new approaches to learning and schooling, not just to testing. If done incorrectly, however, the adoption of these assessments also has the potential to lock our education system—for another decade or more—into its current factory-era model that has proved so inadequate to the task of meeting our nation’s education goals in the 21st century.

Some schools across the country are already moving in this innovative direction, as they shift from focusing on obsolete inputs of the past like seat time to creating new, blended schooling models that combine the best of face-to-face and online learning. An assessment framework stuck in the factory-era relic of its predecessors would not only be orthogonal to innovative efforts like these, but could also serve to stifle further innovation—literally cutting it off at the knees.

The writers make three recommendations: to create a "dynamic testing ecosystem" that includes a variety of platforms rather than just one test; to integrate innovation like instant feedback and real-time, adaptive assessments; and one that supports "competency-based learning," not based on the school calendar, but when the student learns the subject.

The letter has made the rounds in education circles and has been signed by hundreds so far.


Apart from those lobbying for reform in testing, there's another movement afoot advocating that teachers, parents and students opt out of testing altogether. New York City educator Lisa Nielsen proposes that teachers boycott standardized tests for all the reasons outlined above, and then some. "Outdated assessments are driving outdated instruction," she writes.

People have created Facebook groups for opting out, including one called Parents and Kids Against Standardized Testing, which has more than 1,000 fans. A recent CNN story describes a mother who refused to have her two kids take standardized tests, while another decided to have her kids take it "because she's afraid that holding her daughter out could harm the school's test results."

Will these new high-tech assessments fulfill everyone's high expectations? With so many ancillary issues tangled with it, as well as states' different priorities and standards, that's far from being determined.



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