How Should Learning Be Assessed?

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This is the second of a two-part conversation with Yong Zhao about standards, testing and other core elements of the modern system of education, and the assumptions that may be standing in the way of meeting the real learning needs of all children. He is a professor in the college of education at the University of Oregon and author of Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World and World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.

There is already a strong backlash against politicians and school administrators because of high-stakes standardized tests, and the way results are used to justify school closures. Some parents and educators have encouraged families to “opt out” of tests, such as those related to the Common Core State Standards, as a way to protest these practices and the effects they are having on children, families and communities. However, Yong Zhao, education professor at the University of Oregon, recommends that parents, educators and policymakers go a step further, and use the moment to re-examine the role of testing—and the issue of accountability—more broadly.

Tests are just one form of assessment, he points out, and limited in what they can accurately measure. Important qualities such as creativity, persistence and collaboration, for example, are tricky to measure, because they are individualized and situation- or task-specific (someone may collaborate well in one group setting but not in another). And no test can measure whether children are receiving “a quality learning experience that meets the needs of individual students.”

High-stakes tests concern Zhao the most, because he says they represent more than misspent time and money. He faults them for suppressing creativity and innovation, and creating narrowed educational experiences, because everything that is not measured becomes secondary or is dismissed entirely. Moreover, “constant ranking and sorting” creates stress and makes students less confident.

By contrast, feedback that avoids needless comparisons among students can be very useful, and doesn’t require much time or money. When it’s clear which skills and content need to be mastered (such as the ability to conjugate verbs in order to become proficient in a foreign language), low-stakes tests can help learners direct their attention to filling in the gaps in their knowledge. More helpful still are explicit written assessments that describe an individual’s progress. The key to good assessment, says Zhao, is to ask: “Whose purpose does this serve? Is the learner trying to get better using assessment, … rather than just using it to judge?”

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Parents seeking assurance that their children are learning can look at their children’s engagement level, and notice if they’re exploring topics or pursuits that interest them, and improving in their areas of interest.

Steps for Identifying Needs

As for how to evaluate schools, he recommends that parents and community members ponder some key questions. “First of all, ask if the school is really personalizing learning to meet individual needs, with a broad and flexible curriculum,” he says. Children interested in music, for example, should have equal opportunities to develop that skill as to develop literacy.

The next question he would ask: “Is school an engaging place—do students want to go to school? If the more they go to school, the more they hate it, that would be a horrible place,” he says. Analogies with taking bad-tasting medicine fail, he adds, because there’s no disease involved, and “children don’t need to be fixed.”

And finally, “Do the teachers care about the development of the whole child?” he asks. “If a teacher just helped a student who had lost hope because of a personal problem, that should count for something. Teachers should be human mentors. Children can take ownership of their learning, but inevitably they will encounter setbacks. Do teachers help develop their social, emotional and physical well being, and challenge them and push them forward?”

On a broader societal level, educational equity can be gauged by whether schools in low-income jurisdictions receive comparable resources to invest in good teachers, professional development, materials, facilities, field trips and other enrichment activities.

Who Should be Accountable for What?

Teaching can be mandated, but learning can’t, Zhao points out; what adults can do is provide opportunities and offer guidance when needed. That’s what we should be tracking, he says—“accountability should shift back to what we do for kids, rather than what they’ve done for us.”

In other words, each person should be held accountable only for what he or she can control—the educators for providing an environment that stimulates and supports individual learning, and the community and government for providing sufficient funding to enable them to carry this out equitably.

Even if funding levels are modest (in the first article in this series, Zhao explained how quality can be achieved economically), the best way to ensure that the funds are well spent is to have greater local autonomy. “Locally controlled entities are much closer to their constituents,” Zhao says, and more responsive to pressure to cater to their needs. Those most invested in the schools’ learning environments—the children and their parents—then wouldn’t have to work as hard to get their schools to change direction.

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The first part of this conversation with Yong Zhao about standards is available here.

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