By Rosann Tung

1571 “My eyes glazed over at the reading passages, and I had no idea what the multiple choice questions were about. They try to trick you by making all the answers sound right. It was so boring that I didn’t even try to do my best,” said my tenth-grade daughter the evening after taking the PSAT at school.

A recent Huffington Post article by a poet whose work was used in the Texas state middle school assessments underscored the inanity of this type of testing. The poet herself wrote that she did not know the “correct” answers to the questions on the test about her motivations for using stanza breaks, similes, capitalization, and imagery in her own poems.

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made-up questions.

She implores all stakeholders, in all caps, to “STOP TAKING THESE TEST RESULTS SERIOUSLY.”

My daughter is a visual and kinesthetic learner in Boston Public Schools. She is creative, hardworking, and inquisitive, but she does not show most effectively what she knows and can do on traditional paper-and-pencil tests. Her current school, Fenway High School, emphasizes project-based learning and uses performance assessments such as papers, skits, presentations, and debates to determine students’ mastery of content. Students have choices in what they produce, so that they are more engaged in the assignment, which is often rooted in the social, cultural, and everyday lives of teens. Examples include a critical gender and race analysis of a popular music video, a propaganda poster on a topic of her choice (body image), and a policy memo on how police departments could reduce incidents of police brutality against Black and Brown people.

Prior to Fenway, my daughter attended several traditional schools, in which test preparation and testing were the norm and occupied a great deal of instructional time. Homework included mind-numbing exercises with multiple-choice questions in the form of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) or SAT. My daughter is not alone in her negative experience of traditional assessment. In public schools that are increasingly diverse ethnically, linguistically, and culturally, achievement measurement of the type born of No Child Left Behind becomes not only meaningless, but also indefensible, as Asa Hilliard argues:

The acceptance of the reality of diversity is to undermine the possibility for standardized, mass-produced, universally applicable measurement instruments.

There is evidence that standardized tests exacerbate opportunity gaps. For instance, a 2013 College Board report indicated that SAT scores correlate most strongly with family income rather than test prep or ability of the individual test-taker. But whether performance assessments reduce opportunity gaps and lead to greater equity depends on how they are implemented and used in instruction. Given that performance assessments provide increased learning opportunities and deeper engagement, we expect that students who have been underserved by our inequitable systems will do better with performance assessments than with standardized tests, both to inform instruction and to make decisions regarding promotion and graduation.

1572 Our new issue of VUE, Performance Assessment: Fostering the Learning of Teachers and Students proposes an alternative to standardized testing, whose purpose is to sort and rank students and schools. This alternative, based on a performance assessment approach, is personalized and rigorous, and improves teaching and learning – thereby benefiting both students and teachers. Against a backdrop of the opportunities provided by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the challenges of a Trump/DeVos education administration committed to privatizing public education,1 performance assessment is an opportunity for public schools and districts to more equitably meet the needs of all students and to use more relevant, engaging curriculum and instruction that prepares students for complex problem-solving and collaboration.

The issue, planned and produced in partnership with the Center for Collaborative Education, features a diverse range of perspectives on performance assessment policy and practice, with voices representing teachers, students, parents, principals, researchers, policymakers, and leaders of teachers unions, nonprofit organizations, school districts, and state education departments. My hope is that this compilation of perspectives educates and inspires practitioners, researchers, and advocates to make performance assessment systems the norm rather than the exception – not only for my daughter, but for all students with diverse histories and learning styles and for their teachers, whose dialogue, agency, and learning would be transformed. 

Rosann Tung is the director of Research & Policy at AISR and a Boston Public Schools parent. 

1 See, for example, Kamenetz 2017 and Lewis 2017