Frequent Assessments Edge Out Practice and Problem Solving

November 10, 2014

This weekend’s Boston Globe article by James Vaznis did a great service in bringing public attention to the issue of potential ‘over-testing.’   Assessment does have its place. After all, the quality of education delivered to every student, regardless of background or family economic status, is where the foundational American commitment to “equal opportunity,” gets truly tested!

Therefore, those looking at the issue of the appropriate frequency for standardized assessments must ask the right questions so as not to squander this moment of reviewing crucial accountability measures. Assessing too frequently and/or via the wrong metrics risks undermining teachers’ ability to teach all of the so-called 21st century skills. These include: critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, literacy, communication and collaboration and cross-disciplinary thinking.

For our strongest students and teachers, the danger with frequent assessment is not merely a question of decreased instructional time. Rather, it is a question of decreased time to teach single concepts across multiple disciplines and situations. In other words, one cannot teach the “application” of learned facts and cannot train the mind to problem-solve if the goal is quick fact attainment, month after month, to show “mastery” by the metric of any single standardized test. In Montessori, we call the period of “practicing” concepts, the “second period lesson.” (First period introduces the concept and the third period tests mastery of the concept.) The vast majority of a students’ time in school should be spent in the “second period” practicing phase for every single concept introduced across literacy, math, geography, history, science, foreign languages and the list goes on. Frequent assessment, by definition, seeks that students advance quickly past practice to the mastery period.

Let me provide a very simple example: In our classrooms, we would introduce the math concept of division via symbolic little people and a quantity of beads (see image below). One would learn to divide by sharing the beads among the little people.


Pictured is the “first period” or introductory lesson.   One could have children repeat this a few times and then simply have them complete by memory the booklet of math facts (pictured on the left of the above). This would skip from introduction to mastery quickly and might make for great scores on assessments (temporarily).

A stellar kindergarten and early elementary teacher at our School models an alternative.   After introducing the above (wonderful) division manipulative, she would then have children practice by:

        1) measuring our garden plot total length and spacing plants;

        2) dividing the total snack purchased by the School amongst all classes;

3) preparing a doubled (x) or halved ( ÷) recipe in the kitchen;

4) determining what fraction of the whole a portion of prepared food will be for each child; e.g. 1/10 of the whole.

The quickness with which children begin to solve these sample problems above tells a teacher how well they are internalizing and applying the concept of division.   Examples 3 and 4 together above quickly get at a child’s understanding of the concretely applied relationship between operations like multiplication and division and fractions.   (This could be missed by skipping from the introductory lesson of dividing beads amongst little people to rote memorization of the math facts to complete the pictured booklet (see image above). Nowhere does the booklet picture a fraction.   If the extensive period of practice is done well and given adequate time, children should be able to demonstrate mastery across most metrics on most standardized assessments of which we could conceive.   (Of course, a bit of test prep helps but not much should be needed.)

It would be a great disservice to our children and to American education and global standing, if we gave up the “practice” or “applied” learning.   Assessments don’t “wish” for this but they will inadvertently lead to it if teachers are called upon too frequently to prove that their children have mastered new facts in short intervals between assessment administrations. Remember that assessment should show mastery, after extensive and varied practice.   I recall that years ago when we were so infatuated with the education systems of the Japanese or Chinese because of math and science performance, the argument existed that we were overlooking the very thing that made America lead the world in patents and entrepreneurship, namely the ability to think — not merely rote learn facts. Common Core, even with its emphasis on strong standards across grade levels, emphasizes mile deep, vertically integrated learning, rather than mile wide, inch deep knowledge across “unrelated” subject silos.   Overly frequent standardized* assessment measures is antithetical to the “mile deep” teaching towards which we are supposed to be heading with Common Core.

Overly frequent assessment does a related but different disservice to the least academically successful children and the teachers who assist them; it requires teachers to “treat” the symptom rather than the underlying cause of learning delays. First, only the best and most intellectual of teachers can succeed with “underperforming” students and schools.  Most people and even most teachers, unfortunately, do not differentiate between symptoms and true underlying causes in education, so more explanation is needed here.

Consider this example: For a child who is struggling with reading comprehension, a teacher could do more reading tutoring individually with that child or send the child for more reading intensives with a learning specialist, which might mimic the reading comprehension exercises found on standardized tests .   This might marginally increase standardized test scores quickly. However, it treats the symptom rather than the underlying cause.   Underlying causes could be many. It bears noting that only the best- trained teachers will systematically sift through their many observations about the child, and start to “rule in” or “rule out” possible underlying causes. These may include:

1) lack of exposure to reading or varied vocabulary previously;

2) problems with bilateral coordination making crossing of mid-line difficult;

3) problems with binocularity or the eyes working together;

4) dyslexia;

5) problems with working memory or with sequencing; and the list goes on.

A great classroom teacher can work on these underlying causes.   Only for the 1st “cause” listed here would repeated practice with reading be the best way to address difficulties with reading.   Discovering and then addressing the other underlying causes takes significant time.   Concern with frequent assessment metrics is incompatible with working on causes.

Don’t we want our teachers to educate themselves enough and to have the time to develop young minds and address underlying causes of difficulty, rather than put a band-aid on a problem by prepping children to “pass” a test focused fairly narrowly on a specific area of learning.   We rob those very children who need educators with a long-term view and long horizon, those willing to go many steps back to try to build foundations that may not exist.   These teachers who really “know their stuff” including the underlying cognitive foundations of displayed skills like literacy and reading comprehension are few and far between but should be prized and rewarded.   Overly frequent assessment, while perhaps intended to most help underperforming students and schools, does just the opposite because the “cause vs. symptom” approach advocated here does not produce results quickly.   (Now this does not mean that every underperforming school has teachers trained to implement “cause vs. symptom” teaching but those who know how must be given the time and the chance. . .others must be trained.)

        In interim years, between bi-annual or tri-annual standardized tests, one should have teachers across same aged classrooms within a district compare their own notes on classroom records, detailing lessons to which their students have been introduced, what they are practicing and what they have mastered. Systems like Montessori with defined curriculum across every School for the introduction of concepts have an easier time with this self-assessment amongst teachers and comparison

Kristen Hanisch Mansharamani is Founder and Executive Head of School at Torit Montessori in Boston, MA.   She holds a JD from Harvard Law School and a BA from Yale University and has worked as a financial consultant, lawyer, and education entrepreneur.