In recent months, I’ve been growing more and more concerned about the ways in which folks tend to confuse the words testing and assessment. I also have some substantial concerns about what people are calling rubrics these days and the purposes for using them–but I’ll save that for another post. For the next week or so, I’ll be trying to articulate where I am in the progress of my own learning around the topic of assessment, and what is troubling me about all of that. There are some important take aways. Some of these realizations have changed my own practice substantially. Others are teaching me much about what it takes to influence the right kind of change in the field.

First, it’s my understanding that assessment encompasses far more than testing. It’s also my understanding that formative assessment (common or no) is a PROCESS, not a test. To that end, teachers might use a variety of tools to capture their assessment of learning during guided practice, but unless the assessment IMMEDIATELY informs instruction (as in–within moments or days–not weeks or months) the assessment is not really formative in nature. It’s something else. And maybe that something else is a super nifty shiny sparkly wonderful thing, I don’t know. What I do know is that it is definitely NOT a formative assessment of any kind.

Maybe you know this already. Maybe this doesn’t interest you. I’ll tell you why it interests me: when the formative assessment wave crashed upon the shores of Western New York, a lot of people (myself included) were led to believe that this type of assessment was something to be “built” and administered at benchmark points during a school year and then collaboratively scored. This is what many of us started doing, and it didn’t take long to realize this wasn’t getting any of us where we wanted to go. I’ve known this was the wrong approach for over two years now, and I’ve been pretty vocal about that locally. This doesn’t seem to be changing much in the way of practice, though. It’s also made some people really uncomfortable. There is something to be learned about bleeding for your country there, and I’m trying not to pay attention. The fact is that my own daughters continue to bring home benchmark tests that are called formative assessments fairly regularly. At least this year, these “formative assessments” don’t have grades on them. They don’t have any feedback on them either, but hey–at least my relentless questioning accomplished something. Maybe. Last week, this post by Seth Godin really got under my skin in a good way. Sometimes, I feel like my life is an endless example of the phenomena he illustrates there. The formative assessment scramble that we’re experiencing locally connects well, I believe.

Once the train has left the station (and it always leaves rapidly, I’ve learned), it’s hard to turn it around. There is a lesson to be learned about slow change in all of that, particularly for those of us who put these trains in motion. There is also a lesson to be learned about questioning “best practices” and standing up for what we know may be right rather than simply doing what we are told because someone who seems scary has told us to do those things. Nine¬† times out of ten, these people never intended to intimidate or dictate to anyone. We all have a job to do. Many folks are pressured to do it better and faster than anyone else.

Desperate people long for answers, and some of them tend to make messiahs out of mere men and women. Particularly charismatic men and women. Doing the sort of work we do can be a real ego boost in the beginning. Leading workshops and initiatives and being appreciated can make you feel like you are doing great things. This is deceptive and potentially destructive, though. Over the years, I’ve learned that having people like me is irrelevant. Many people do (particularly people who have walked the same path), and I’m grateful for that. But change is very difficult, and if everyone is thrilled to death with me, I find myself wondering if we’re really accomplishing anything meaningful after all.¬† I’m also realizing that all of us have a responsibility to help one another do our work well–even if that means respectfully disagreeing with powerful people. There are lessons to be learned about what makes someone truly powerful in these sorts of situations, though. I’m learning that too.

I’m glad to be working in a number of schools this year that are working hard to approach formative assessment in ways that truly serve students and empower teachers to change practice. I’ll be blogging about what this is looking like for us and what we’re discovering in the week ahead. I’m eager for your feedback and your perspective. In the meantime, I’m off to the New York State PTA conference in Saratoga Springs this weekend. I’ve been invited to talk with parents and educators about assessment, ironically. I’m looking forward to the conversations that will take place there. I imagine they might be very different, given this unique audience! Please drop in if you plan to attend.

Thanks to all of you who are helping me learn and grow in the work that I do. This is not easy stuff.



  1. For many years now teachers in the UK have been voicing their concern over the amount of testing that we have and the age at which it starts (7yrs old).
    As a response to this the government introduced another sytem which is taking some time to work out the best way to do. Now people want testing back because it was ‘easy’.
    Testing is assessment of learning and what we are interested is assessment for learning – to borrow a phrase from Dylan and Williams ( As they say it is the single most important thing we can do to raise standards and develop life-long learners. Keep up the good fight because it is worth it!

  2. I agree with you Joy. I think one stumbling point is around the fact that tests can be used to help us assess FOR learning. One argument might be that we can all give the same multiple choice/constructed response test on the same day…get together and score it a week or two later….and then take those conclusions and make instructional or curricular decisions based upon what we find. This would be an assessment FOR learning, wouldn’t it?

    I’m just wondering if this serves kids in timely ways, if it gives us new or better data that we didn’t already have to begin with, and if it aligns to our greater purposes as educators–which has everything to do with engaging kids in rigorous, inquiry and project based learning experiences. Also—depending on the skills we are hoping to assess, a test may not be the best method of assessment.

    I have an issue with imposing more tests when we already have a variety of measures in place that can give us similar (or perhaps, even better) information. Maybe before we begin adding more tests of any kind into the mix, it would make better sense to build a real sense of assessment literacy and evaluate what is already in place, in order to better align the tools we use and value to our purposes and the practices that are most powerful to our needs.

  3. Angela – this is a very interesting conversation – especially with NYS developing the “new” ELA test for 11th graders. I was just wondering how many of us will now feel that we HAVE to change our instruction because of the new test??? Good readers and writers or students taught good reading and writing practices should be able to pass a test no matter what.
    I am increasingly more interested in HOW to make my students be creative, develop their own ideas, create topics and projects that push their limits – hopefully this will assist in making them life long learners….for what ever they choose.

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