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Testing, testing! How educators use assessments to help students learn

What are standardized tests for, and who benefits from them? 


Editor’s note: ‘How Schools Work’ is a column explaining the day-to-day workings of public schools. Our writer is Carol Lautenbach, a veteran educator and School News Network contributor.

By Carol Lautenbach

All districts — “This is only a test.” When these words come over the radio or television, they immediately grab my attention. Strangely, the words are meant to be reassuring but, for me, they always are kind of a jolt that makes me a little anxious. Or maybe that’s the fault of the loud beeps that often precede them.

Do you remember having a similar feeling when a teacher announced that there would be a test when you were in school? Maybe the topic was vocabulary, or math concepts, or historical events. Even if you knew the content, studied the day before, reviewed in class, and got enough sleep … when that test arrived on your desk (or desktop these days), you may have felt that same kind of anxiety.

Tests, assessments, quizzes, evaluations, projects, observations — all of these are part of school life. Understanding both what purposes they have, and also how to help your child show what they know and can do on these measures of learning, can help keep them from being an unexpected jolt. 

‘Knowing more about the purpose of tests and helping students see tests as an opportunity to grow can turn anxiety into action.’

‘So, How’s He Doing, Overall?’

When our oldest child was in kindergarten, we were excited about his first parent-teacher conference. We didn’t really know what to expect as we waited outside the closed classroom door while another family ended their time with the teacher. After all, we had never done this before. When the door opened, we went in and sat in little kindergarten-height chairs at the kidney-shaped table the teacher had prepared. 

She pulled out a folder with our son’s name on it. It was full of artifacts showing the learning he had done so far that year. Then, after that preview, she reached into the folder and pulled out a long sheet of paper that had been folded in on itself twice, making a large booklet. She set it on the table and opened it, first once then again. 

This progress report, with categories for everything from math and language learning, to social development, to physical, musical, and artistic skills, seemed almost as big as a small tablecloth! It was clear she knew our son well; she went through each section, explaining the scores she had given to evaluate his progress. Whew. It was a lot of information for first-time kindergartner parents to take in. 

When she was done explaining everything, she folded the paper back in on itself, once and then again, and asked if we had any questions. After a pause, my husband asked, “So, how’s he doing, overall?” 

As parents, the world of evaluating learning progress was unfamiliar, and we needed some help understanding it all. 

‘Measures of achievement tell you where a student is, but they don’t tell you where a student could end up.’

— Carol Dweck, author of ‘Mindset’

What are Tests For? 

Assessing learning is complex, in part because of the way results are reported and in part because the purpose of tests can be unclear. In 2018, School News Network featured a story with the headline “Michigan’s NAEP Scores: What do they mean? Probably not what you think.” So, I guess we were in good company when we were young parents. 

Tests by any name can have two purposes: As assessments of learning and/or for learning. Before you feel confused like my husband and I did back in the day, here’s a handy explanation from the website TeachThought: “(T)he difference is a matter of function and purpose — a matter of ‘who’: assessment of learning is a way to see what the students can do, while assessment for learning (my emphasis) is a way to see what the teachers should do in response.” The former are called “summative” tests and the latter “formative.” But don’t worry! There won’t be a test on any of this….

One more thing before we dig into this difference a little deeper. Tests and assessments are a little like fraternal twins. They have similarities but they are different, too. For example, if I wanted to learn to cook, I might take a class to learn how to use various pans, knives, and techniques for cooking — all skills that can be tested to see whether they are being done correctly. But the real value of the skills is whether or not I can make something that tastes good using my newfound skills. That’s assessment.  

Tests of learning include things like NWEA MAP tests to measure student progress, WIDA tests for multilingual learners, and, for older students, M-STEP, NAEP, the SAT and the ACT. These standardized tests are designed mostly to see what each student knows and can do. Some are used to make decisions about the kind of supports that are needed in the school system to help all students thrive; others are part of helping students figure out next steps to pursue after high school. 

Some of these tests are a one-time experience in each tested grade and require some preparation. They are all given at a set time, determined by the district, state or federal government. In some cases the results show how your child’s performance compares to everyone else who took the test. 

The results are typically shared with students and parents — though often long after they took the test in the first place. When I was an elementary principal in Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, I often heard from teachers that standardized tests, like most of these, ironically took a lot of time away from learning — time that could have been better spent on applying the skills in a way that actually makes learning engaging and meaningful. 

Back to the Tablecloth 

Now let’s compare all that to assessments for learning. The biggest difference is that this kind of assessment happens all the time! 

Think back to that tablecloth-size progress report my son’s teacher prepared. A lot of the information she shared was probably from observation, some from tests provided by the companies that created materials she used in the classroom, and some from assessments she created, like a vocabulary quiz. Teachers use all the information they gain in these ways to plan individual paths for students, to identify where reteaching or new challenges might be needed, and, instead of comparing with others, to help students set their own goals for learning. Some assessments for learning are even done in groups!  

The international “Happy schools” movement advocates for much more assessment for learning: “Assessments should be about learning progressions, illuminate students’ thinking, and promote application of knowledge to real world problems.” I agree wholeheartedly. 

Like me, many feel jolted into anxiety when they know a test is coming up. Knowing more about the purpose of tests and helping students see tests as an opportunity to grow can turn anxiety into action. 

And always remember, everyone is more than their test scores. No test tells you everything important to know about a person. Carol Dweck says it best in her book “Mindset”: “Measures of achievement tell you where a student is, but they don’t tell you where a student could end up.”

What Can Families Do?

As you experience all kinds of learning assessments with your child this year, here are some ideas to try to support and understand your child’s learning experience better:

  • Ask: Be like my husband! When he didn’t understand the information that the teacher shared, he asked for an explanation. During parent-teacher conferences, ask your child’s teacher what assessments were used to measure progress. If there is something you don’t understand or a test you haven’t heard about, ask for more information. 
  • Do: The most important word you can use when you talk with your child about their learning progress is “yet.” If your child is anxious about taking a particular test, reassure them: “There may be things on the test you don’t know, yet. That’s okay.” Learning is about growing and there is no set time or pace that needs to be met. 
  • Read: Supporting your child while s/he experiences the joys and frustrations of learning is such an important part of their development. Learn more about Carol Dweck’s growth vs. fixed mindset at this site to learn more to help your child through all of life’s many tests. It even has a link to a mindset assessment, eight questions that will give you feedback on your own ways of thinking about growth.  

What Do You Want to Know about Schools? 

School News Network values and desires your input. What do you wonder about how schools work? What questions do you have about the world of education? I’ll review your ideas and hope to address many of them in a future column. Please email me at carollautenbach@snnkent.org

Read more from SNN about tests and assessments: 
Stress test: students speak their minds on the M-STEP
‘You sneak them into learning’

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Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.


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