The Final Test

Just about everyone hates the high-stakes tests that provide the principal means for schools to figure out how well students and teachers are doing–and for elected officials and citizens to figure out how well schools are doing their jobs as well. They skew everything that happens in the classroom in the direction of those bubbles being filled with number two pencils.

But what if tests weren’t “high-stakes” events comparing everyone to an abstract standard, but instead subtle, regular, customized assessments not only of what students know but how they are learning? And what if “tests” were more like games?

This is the far-but-visible horizon of educational assessment explored by Bill Tucker of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “Grand Test Auto,” another component of the special report on school reform in the May/June issue of the Washington Monthly, offered as a sneak preview online this week.

Tucker compares the testing methodology of our schools to the obsolete practice of “taking inventory” that retailers employed before bar codes, scanners, and radio-frequency devices gave them the ability not only to keep up with product on the shelves, but with shifting patterns of consumer preferences. “Real-time assessment and response” is technologically feasible for education as well, but will require a careful process of R&D and experimentation well beyond the purview of today’s policymakers. When it becomes more widely available, however, “stealth assessment” methods, often based on gaming principles, will begin to refocus not only assessment but teaching towards gradual mastery of skills rather than static measurements of grade-level achievement. Moreover, the classroom itself could be transformed from an environment that rewards “seat-time” via year-end assessments into one in which learning defines progress.

It’s unclear when it will become possible to administer the final old-school high-stakes test. Tucker suggests that the post-testing era could begin within a decade. But it will begin sooner if policymakers and citizens alike stop confusing the very idea of educational assessment with everything they dislike about an increasingly obsolete teaching-to-cheap-tests regime. You should definitely check out Tucker’s article for a glimpse of that far horizon.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.