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W. James Popham: The Fatal Flaw of Educational Assessment

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In this article that appeared in Education Week, testing expert W. James Popham explains why the current wave of assessments are fundamentally flawed.


He writes:


Today’s educational tests are intended to satisfy three primary purposes, all of which can play a constructive role in students’ education: to compare, to instruct, and to evaluate.

Comparison-focused educational tests permit us to identify score-based differences among individual students or among groups of students. The resulting comparisons often lead to classifications of students’ scores on a student-by-student basis (such as by using percentiles) or on a group-by-group basis (such as by distinguishing between “proficient” and “nonproficient” students).


A second purpose of educational testing is instructional—that is, to elicit ongoing evidence regarding students’ levels of achievement so that better decisions can be made about how to teach those students. Test-based evidence can also help students themselves decide whether to modify how they are trying to learn.


A third purpose of educational testing is evaluation—that is, determining the quality of a completed set of instructional activities provided by one or more teachers. These evaluations often focus on a lengthy segment of instruction, such as an entire school year.


All three of these purposes, if implemented by using appropriate tests, can benefit students. The trouble is that one of those purposes—comparison—has completely dominated America’s educational testing for almost a century.


Why are we so obsessed with wanting to compare children? Does it really matter if your son or daughter in Michigan has a higher or lower score than someone of the same age in Texas or Maine?


This is the silliest possible misuse of educational testing, and the least valuable.


Education is not a basketball game or a race horse. It is about developing the human beings in our care to be the best they can be. Not by punishment, not by scare tactics, not by humiliation, but by the same care and support we would give to a precious flower in our garden. If you crush a flower, it never grows.

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