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How I stopped worrying and learned to love assessments


by Jenny Hanson

If you had told me in high school that I would one day be creating tests, I would have laughed in your face. Because, in my world, tests were things to be feared, dreaded, avoided if possible. Let’s be honest: I hated tests.

Yes, though I now work with a team of brilliant folks to design assessments taken by thousands of students across the country, tests always left a pit in my stomach caused by the worry that one bad test score could prevent me from achieving what I hoped for in life.

Two testing experiences stand out as especially traumatizing.

At 15, I studied for days for the right to drive with my parents between the hours of 8 am and 8 pm. I went into to the testing center, stood at the monitor for 30 minutes, clicked some buttons, and walked out…a failure. I felt humiliated. (In case you’re worrying, I did earn my license a month later and have a sparkling record—but, still, it was a kick to the gut.)

The second was when my tenth grade English teacher sat me down after a practice PSAT and told me that, if my score was any indication of how I’d perform on the SAT, I wasn’t going to get into any of my dream schools. Again, it all worked out well, but I suffered serious anxiety.

How many students does this happen to? How many kids feel crushed by the weight of test result numbers?

Years later, I entered the classroom, a fresh faced English major tasked with teaching literature and writing to high schoolers. With little training to guide me, I began creating curricula and assessments from the ground up. I was beginning to better understand the purpose of tests: I needed to know whether the material I taught was absorbed, who needed extra support, and what topics to target. But tests were still a thorn in my side, even though I was giving rather than taking them.

One test in particular I worked really hard on for my sophomores was a 15-question open response beauty about the Odyssey. I spent days crafting thoughtful analytic questions, poring over lessons and notes and imagining all the things my students could now write eloquently about.

Then I put the test in front of my kids. Oh, goodness—it was like watching sprinters attempt a marathon. The students charged off the mark eagerly enough, but quickly lost steam and all hope until every step was agony. I think maybe there were tears. I gave them another class period to finish, but they all absolutely bombed it; and I had once again come face to face with my mortal enemy—the assessment—and failed epically.

How many teachers does this happen to? How many see assessments as a burden rather than an opportunity?

What is formative assessment?

Five years later, after more teaching and grad school, I found myself working in—wait for it—a large district’s office of assessment to design local tests to be used as part of teacher evaluations. At this point in my career, my distaste for assessments had subsided a bit, and this project seemed worthwhile. It was driven by the theory that if you engaged teachers in the creation process, you increased the likelihood of buy-in, engagement, and positively influencing instructional practices. We essentially were trying to make high-stakes tests formatively valuable; here is what I learned:

  • Creating good assessments is really darn hard.

  • There’s a fundamental tension between assessments that are high stakes and those that are formatively valuable.

No matter how you cut it, those tests were seen as the enemy. It was interesting now trying to convince others of the value of assessments; but they were received with the same distrust and trepidation I had about them much of my life.

Assessments have got to be about supporting teachers and students.

The value of assessments is clear to me now. I’ve seen how they can inform instruction to boost student learning. But I still recognize that, depending on the context, tests can feel high stakes or onerous. I also know firsthand how hard it is to create excellent assessments—and how much educators could benefit from support to ensure tests advance their intended purpose.

Those realities are what led me to ANet.

I encountered this flow chart on one of my first days with ANet, and it perfectly captures for me what we aim to accomplish. Without one of those components — purpose, intentionality, support, and high standards — assessments become blunt and futile measures. I get to work with an incredible team of intelligent, thoughtful, and purpose-driven former educators dedicated to creating assessments that truly support learning. And we work closely with equally impressive teams who provide the support and network of shared practices to make them effective and meaningful.

So my answer for why I do what I do comes readily now and doesn’t plunge me into an existential fit.

Recently I observed fourth-grade students taking one of our ELA interim assessments. I could see their nervousness and the focus and energy that went in to every question. My heart went out to them. I also felt assured that the assessments were high quality and that they were in front of them for the right reasons.

Jenny is ANet’s vice president of assessment.


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