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With assessments, one size can’t fit all.

by Tony Plunkett

I started working in public education in 2003 right as No Child Left Behind was kicking into high gear, which meant that everyone was worrying about the new annual testing requirements. Before joining ANet’s Assessment Team last fall, I was lucky enough to spend 7 years in the classroom, 2 years at the largest school district in the country, and 3 years at a state education department. One of the few common denominators across all of those different settings was the smiling face and firm handshake of the vendor assuring me that their product did in fact “do it all.”

Assessment vendors like to sell all-in-one tests. You can use them for any purpose: instruction, accountability, evaluation, gauging what students know, etc. It makes sense because the more uses you can think of for a product, the more they can sell it. And from the customer’s perspective, if it can serve many needs, that’s fewer purchases, fewer decisions, maybe some money saved.

Let's be honest: this is a lousy chef's knife. [Swiss Army, CC2.0 by Jim Pennucci]

But if it does everything, does it really do anything well?

Think about some of the reasons that we assess: to measure growth, as a diagnostic, for accountability/evaluation, or to inform teachers’ instructional decisions.

  • In order to be able to show growth, though, an assessment needs to include the same (or similar) content across multiple tests, which means it can’t target recently-taught material and might include topics not yet covered.

  • Diagnostic tests need to cover lots of small topics to zero in on discrete skills.

  • Tests used for accountability or teacher evaluation usually need to include a sampling of content from across an entire semester or year.

  • And tests that guide strategic teaching must align to new, higher standards and offer multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding—such as multiple item types, writing to texts, and open response math problems.

How could any one assessment do all of those things well?

Of course, there’s a reason vendors make compromises to cram everything into their assessments: they are businesses, and their fundamental motivation is to make as large a profit as they can. They’re thinking more about what will drive sales than what will help teachers support their students.

ANet assessments are designed for one purpose: informing instruction.

While that might not seem revolutionary, it’s actually a pretty big deal. ANet isn’t a vendor. We’re a nonprofit organization motivated by the same thing as the educators we partner with: improving student learning. That clear mission informs every decision we make in creating our assessments, which is why I’m so happy to work here.

It drives our development team to work incredibly hard to find rich grade-level texts, to obsess over creating the best possible item sets and tasks, and to continuously seek feedback from teachers and experts that makes our assessments stronger and more aligned. Our mission means that we work until we can stand confidently behind our assessments’ quality—because we’re driven by something far more important than sales.

Tony is ANet’s managing director of assessment strategy. 

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