As educators, we have all heard the phrase “Balanced Assessment System”. As a matter of fact, most of us in the K-12 world are striving to execute the perfect method to achieve this balance. We are looking for the best way to provide the most accurate and comprehensive profile of the whole child, effectively improve instructional practices, and meet the unique and diverse needs of every single student we serve. How do we do this? We spend countless hours poring over information from experts in the field. We work endlessly to ensure teachers are assessment- and data-literate so that they are able to identify quality assessments and analyze data to make informed decisions about instruction and student needs. We stress the importance of targeted and differentiated instruction, which are determined through the ongoing formative assessments used to monitor student progress.
Successful educators don’t stop there, though. We take it even further. We unpack standards to gain a better understanding of the various levels of complexity and determine exactly what our students need to know. We read through test specs to understand content limits and question types. We utilize test design summaries and blueprints to ensure we are preparing students for what they will need to be able to demonstrate on high-stakes tests. This is how we set students up for success. In many cases, this is the ultimate summative assessment and indicator of effective instructional practices: how students perform on these tests. We use these results to grade our schools and to grade our teachers. The stakes are high and the pressure is on at every level from the top down. So of course it makes sense that we take this approach in designing the ultimate Balanced Assessment System. After all, it is what determines “success” in education, right?
But are these systems truly balanced? Are these methods truly helping to educate the whole child and prepare them for the 21st century world? The very idea of expecting to perfect an assessment of something as complex as a human is completely irrational. When we as educators put our blinders on, streamline our focus and dive head-first into “crunch time” to prepare students for state assessments, are we really meeting the needs of the child? Of course not.
If we truly want to move towards a Balanced Assessment System, we need to start by including more than just the core (and usually isolated) content areas. A narrow focus can limit what students are taught on a daily basis. Too often, students are being taught to recall basic facts and demonstrate skills that in the real world are obsolete, given instant access to the world wide web. It is no longer necessary or impressive to be able to recall historical dates or calculate the sale price of an item with this information available on our phones at the touch of a finger. The real-life skills our students will need to be successful in the future cannot be measured with the superficial, and usually low-level questions from a pencil and paper (or even computer-based) test. More often than not, and increasingly in the future, it is things like empathy, initiative, collaboration and perseverance that are truly valued in the workplace and lead to success in life. How can those be developed and measured? If they are overshadowed by the weight and pressure put on schools, teachers, and students to perform well on standardized assessments, how can we say we are educating the whole child? What about the importance of fostering an environment where students are taught how to become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers? How are these accounted for if schools over-emphasize standardized testing?
As educators, we know what our students need. We need to listen to our instincts that tell us our students are more than data points on a chart. We know that what they need to become successful and productive members of society goes far beyond the limits of what can currently be measured. It is no secret that the skills and content we are assessing on most standardized tests are not the skills and content that will be of value when students are ready to enter the workforce. It is time to come together and turn the traditional approach on its head. We need a new and innovative Balanced Assessment System that will benefit students in the long run. We need a system that will allow educators deeper insight into each child, so that skills such as creativity, collaboration, and problem solving can be nurtured and allowed to flourish. In order to identify needs and target instruction, we must to come together to tip the scales and ensure that we are adjusting our methods to keep up with this rapidly changing world. It is not until we shift our focus and rethink our current assessment systems that we will truly be able to make a difference and have an impact on the future.