Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

The Meaning and Purpose of Assessment

"There is something deeply hypocritical in a society that holds an inner-city child only eight years old 'accountable' for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam, but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years before."
~Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America

What is Assessment?


he word assessment is defined as "the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something." Further, the word evaluation is defined as "the making of a judgment about the amount, number, or value of something." In and of itself, assessment is neither a good nor a bad thing. For example, self-assessment is an extremely valuable tool throughout one's life. In the selection process for a job, an employer must assess a person's ability to perform the tasks required for that job. A potential investor uses a variety of assessments, including hard data, to evaluate the company's quality.

What is essential to note in the definition of assessment is that:

  1. it does not require metrics—hard data; and
  2. it says nothing about how the evaluation or estimation of the ability must take place. In fact, the word estimation and the term making a judgment imply that assessment may be less than precise. Judgments and estimates are both subjective!

The more important and complex the decision, the more factors one typically takes into account in the assessment. There are few things more complex than the human mind. Yet in today's knowledge- and data-centered public schools, most assessment has become synonymous with multiple-choice tests whose questions have a single right answer. This, despite the fact that those tests do not "evaluate the nature or quality of students." The main thing they evaluate is the ability to memorize information and reproduce it by filling in the correct bubbles on an answer sheet. Despite the fact that high-stakes tests do not meet the definition of assessment, nor do they measure learning beyond the lowest cognitive levels, they have become the major factor in judging whether a student, a teacher, or a school is "successful" or "failing." Worse, given the emphasis placed on these test scores, and the psychological stress this puts on students, they often have a profound negative effect on the future of many learners.

How did this happen? As with other aspects of education and learning, it is imperative that we go back to the beginning and revisit the basic questions about why, what, and how learning can or should be assessed.

The Current Purpose of Assessment in Public Education


he word assessment is often linked to the word accountability. In fact, at times, the two are seen as synonymous. The assumption is that, because taxpayers pay for public schools, schools must be held accountable for doing what schools are supposed to do. But what is it that schools are supposed to do? Doesn't the role of assessment depend on the stated purpose of public education?

Some theorists draw the distinction between a purpose (a main goal) and a function (something that is assumed to occur without directed effort.)(1) Obviously, more effort is put into those processes identified as purposes. So which of the following should be assigned as purposes, and therefore the tasks on which education should focus? [These were previously described in this article about the purpose of education.]

According to the U.S. Department of Education, their mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. (Notice that there is no mention of the goals of individuals, personal values, a sense of well-being, self-realization, self-efficacy, or the capacity/ability to lead a fulfilling life, etc.)

Based on the mission statement, plus the types of assessments demanded by the DOE, one must infer that the purposes they have chosen for education are acquisition of information about the past and present: includes traditional disciplines such as literature, history, science, mathematics; and the capacity/ability to earn a living. One might give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they think all the other factors in the table would automatically occur while learners are focused on "just the facts," but there is no evidence in either the statement or education policies that the development of individuals, their goals, or their well-being were even considered.

Is there any item on the list of proposed purposes of education that you believe should not be addressed in schools? This is one of the main differences between knowledge-centered education and learner-centered education. Mandated public school education is about the transmission of the same information to everyone. Learner-centered education does not ignore academics nor any of the core abilities that one expects learners to achieve. However, the mission of learner-centered education is greatly expanded. It is about facilitating the development of the unique potential of individual learners. This includes not only mental growth, but all the other elements of being human that are largely ignored in public education. These include the physical, emotional, social, spiritual (knowledge of self), creative, and natural (relationship with nature) domains. In other words, all of the listed factors become a part of the purpose. Learner-centered environments facilitate the development of the whole child.

Note: There has been a lot of talk in recent years about "teaching" and "assessing" social and emotional learning. I can just see the lesson plan and assessment now!

  1. Tuesday: Teach the definitions of admiration, gratitude, respect, and appreciation. Give several examples of each.
  2. Wednesday: Give a test. Sample question:
    You forgot your lunch at home. Diego offers to share his lunch with you. What should you feel?
    a. admiration
    b. gratitude
    c. respect
    d. appreciation


In learner-centered schools that focus on the development of the whole individual, appropriate social and emotional responses are not "taught." They are "learned" through immersion in a caring, respectful culture. Growth in these areas is "assessed" through observation of the changes in each learner's behavior over time. Does anyone really believe that emotions and social interactions can be "measured"?

Assessing Schools

Focusing only on the acquisition of pre-determined knowledge and the ability to get a job, educational policy makers have decided that the only way to hold teachers, students, and schools "accountable" is through assessment—and that the most efficient way to assess learning is by paper-and-pencil testing. This is an extremely simplistic and limiting chain of assumptions that is not only fundamentally flawed, but has been extremely detrimental to public education, and more important, to learning. Why?

The question of what schools are "supposed to do" was conveniently simplified by NCLB—once again relying only on hard data. NCLB offered a single, explicit definition of a failing school: one that fails to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) for two or more years in a row.(2) Although AYP was supposedly ended by ESSA, the mindset of school accountability remains. So let's see how adequate yearly progress was determined? Here is a summary (and analysis of the problems with AYP) written by William J. Mathis in 2006.

"The fundamental requirement of AYP is that all children meet mastery levels on their state's standardized tests by 2014. … Progress is measured by comparing the percentage of students who attain target scores in a given grade with the percent of students who attained them in the same grade the previous year. If the school meets its performance goals for the year, … it is said to have made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). It is important to understand that this procedure compares two entirely different groups of students rather than measuring the progress (or lack thereof) of a particular cohort of students."(3) [emphasis added]

In other words, the average 4th grade test scores on a single test in reading are compared to the average test scores of 4th graders from the previous year! If this year's students, who may have little or nothing in common with last year's students, don't score higher than the previous year's average, the school fails to make AYP and may be subject to sanctions. Does this make sense?

The talk about "failing schools" began with AYP. Mathis went on to explain why using AYP to "measure" whether schools were failing was unsupported by reliable evidence, unrealistic, and invalid largely because of inequal funding. "The program is significantly underfunded in a way that will disproportionately penalize schools attended by the neediest children."(4) Mathis also pointed out that narrowing the curriculum to the tested areas came at the cost of other vital educational purposes.

In light of all these issues, Mathis recommended that "AYP sanctions be suspended until the premises underlying them can be either confirmed or refuted by solid, scientific research and unintended, negative consequences can be avoided."(5) Mathis' concerns were never addressed and everything he predicted has happened.

The passage of ESSA in late 2015 removed the concept of AYP and permitted "other" forms of assessment. However, ESSA still requires that states continue to use, and rely heavily on, standardized, data-driven assessments for accountability.(6)

Not only was AYP a totally inappropriate way to judge the so-called "success" of a given school, but of greater importance, it provided no information about the learning of any individual student. If education is about helping every child learn, then isn't that what testing should be assessing? If assessment is about accountability, shouldn't we be asking "To what extent are the federal, state, and local government's role in public education held accountable to the public, and how should that accountability be assessed?"

A fundamental, but rarely questioned assumption in this assessment system is that the externally-written and graded tests that students take are true indicators of learning. Shouldn't ascertaining the validity and reliability of these "high-stakes" tests be a pre-condition to any mandated uses of those tests? Instead, teachers, students, and anyone else who might come in contact with these tests are sworn to secrecy and threatened with lawsuits if they divulge anything about the tests.

Despite these threats, some teachers have felt compelled to let people know what was happening. Unable to remain silent about what one teacher saw as serious flaws, the teacher anonymously explained that, not only were passages in the PAARC ELA test two grade levels above the reading level at which they were administered, but the questions "tested" content that was not present in the Common Core Standards. (PAARC is a criterion-referenced test specifically designed to assess student mastery of the Common Core Standards.) This information passed quickly from one educational blogger to another. Many of them were quickly threatened by a lawyer with Pearson…the company that writes and distributes the test. Other posts mysteriously disappeared from social media sites. Pearson cited copyright infringement and test security.

Test validity refers to the extent to which a test measures what it is supposed to measure. Apparently, when it comes to the validity of the PAARC and other similar tests, everyone is expected to take Pearson's word that the test has been validated…without ever being able to see the test.(7)

In a recent article, Poet Sara Holbrook told of her experience trying to answer questions about poems on the Texas STAAR test (also written by Pearson). She had been contacted by a teacher who couldn't answer several of the test questions about her poem. One was about the number of stanzas in the poem. As it turned out, the test prep company had printed the poem incorrectly, so there was no way for the students to select the correct answer!

In another question, the writer of the question asked students to identify the "motivation" for something included in the poem. Since the writer never asked the poet for her motivation, the "correct answer" to the question was totally subjective and not a "fact."

"My final reflection is this: any test that questions the motivations of the author without asking the author is a big baloney sandwich," she wrote. "Mostly test makers do this to dead people who can't protest. But I'm not dead. I protest."(8)

What are the Options?


he watchdog organization Fair Test has suggested that governments have fallen far short of their own responsibility. Keep in mind that Fair Test includes many more factors than the memorization of facts in their perception of the purpose of education. While not totally learner-centered, they do base their ideas on extensive research on authentic learning.

Fair Test suggests a system of "authentic" accountability with the following conditions:

  1. Federal, state and local governments must work together to provide a fair opportunity for all children to learn a rich curriculum in a supportive yet challenging environment. Governments have generally failed to meet this fundamental accountability requirement because they have not ensured adequate, equitable funding and because they have primarily emphasized test scores.
  2. Accountability systems must use multiple forms of evidence of student learning. If we want to know how well students are doing, we need to look at a range of real student work. If we want students to learn more or better, we have to provide teachers and students with useful feedback based on high-quality classroom assessments that encompass a variety of ways to demonstrate knowledge and that fit with how children really learn.
  3. Accountability systems must focus on helping teachers and schools ensure educational success for all students. They must also ensure that schools are safe, healthy, supportive and challenging environments. This means providing data useful for improvement efforts, as well as ample time and resources to enable teachers to learn more, share knowledge and get better at what they do.
  4. Accountability systems must involve those most directly affected and closest to the classroom. Therefore, the primary accountability mechanisms must be local. They must involve educators, parents, students and the local community; and they must use participatory processes such as local school councils, annual reports and meetings to review school progress.
  5. The primary responsibility of state governments is to provide tools and support for schools and teachers to improve while ensuring that equity and civil rights are maintained. Intervention should take place only when localities have been given resources and support and still fail to improve, or when there are uncorrected civil rights violations.(9)

Fair Test also lists a set of principles for Authentic Accountability, including answers to the questions Accountable to What Ends? Accountable for What? Accountable to Whom? And Accountable by What Means?(10)

Despite the fact that these issues have been present since the inception of NCLB, little has changed. In the Opt-Out movement, for example, many parents, seeing the damage that high-stakes testing is doing to their children, are telling schools that their children will not take the tests. Although the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) claims to have reduced the dependence on testing, many states are, at the same time, threatening parents who Opt Out. The movement is growing, but has not yet exerted sufficient pressure to force federal, state, and local governments to rethink the whole issue of assessment.

We've seen that current assessment practices in public schools offer little information about learning of individual students, which one might assume should be the primary purpose of schools. Please read Can Learning Be Assessed? to understand more about this issue.

  1. Callaway, R. (1979) Teachers' Beliefs Concerning Values and the Functions and Purposes of Schooling, Eric Document ED 177110
  2. Bracey, Gerald W. (2009) How Do "You" Define a Failing School? Principal Leadership, v9 n6 p58-59. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ829665
  3. Mathis, William J. Sept. 2006. The Accuracy and Effectiveness of Adequate Yearly Progress, NCLB's School Evaluation System. p5 http://greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/GLC_AYP_Mathis_FINAL.pdf
  4. Ibid. p 3
  5. Ibid.
  6. http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2015/12/the-every-student-succeeds-act-more-programs-and-federal-intervention-in-pre-k-and-k12-education
  7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mercedes-schneider/parcc-ceo-to-prof-who-pos_b_9987120.html
  8. cf. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/01/07/poet-i-cant-answer-questions-on-texas-standardized-tests-about-my-own-poems/ and http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-texas-poem-puzzle-20170109-story.html
  9. http://www.fairtest.org/draft-principles-authentic-accountability
  10. Ibid.

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