“Today’s eagerness to jettison our commitment to leave ‘no child behind’ is a shame,” writes Chad Aldeman in a recent article (“In Defense of Annual School Testing”) in The New York Times.  He argues that standardized testing, although not perfect, has improved student performance and graduation rates. And yet, despite these improvements, many teachers and parents are frustrated with the quantity of testing and the perception of low value to students. This perception is understandable — assessment programs over the past 15 years have delivered plenty of data about student performance, but not the sort of data that teachers have found useful to directly improve student learning.

In its purest form, the result of an assessment should be a clear benefit to students. Catherine Palomba and Trudy Banta wrote in 1999 that “assessment is the systematic collection, review and use of information about educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving student learning and development” (Assessment Essentials: Planning, Implementing, Improving). No Child Left Behind started the systematic process of collecting data about student performance, but for the first five years of the program, it didn’t deliver on this full ‘assessment promise.’

Early assessment programs were used almost exclusively for accountability because the resulting data was too difficult for teachers to interpret and apply in their classrooms. Teachers were expected to parse complex sets of student data and intuitively grasp how to apply them to their curriculum and teaching pedagogy. For teachers with barely enough time to prepare their lessons for the coming weeks, this was asking too much, and most summative assessment data simply went unused. In the latter half of the 2000s, student assessment programs became more sophisticated and included higher-order test items to better measure student understanding. Yet the output of these programs remained woefully untailored to the instructional needs in the classroom.

Without any feasible way to connect assessment results to student learning, teachers and parents have rightly become cynical about standardized testing.  This disconnect between promise and actual classroom benefit has also contributed to the notion of over-testing. Yet this should not indict standardized testing as a whole, but rather, its execution.

In any field, data is virtually useless if it can’t easily and quickly be absorbed by its intended audience.  Corporations have solved this challenge with business intelligence tools that visualize data in ways that convey their intended message in seconds.  Almost five years ago, The New York Times authored an article, “When the Data Struts Its Stuff” by Natasha Singer. Ms. Singer extolled the benefits of data visualizations and described its benefits across industries including “companies, governments, (and) academic institutions.” Corporations have embraced data visualizations as a way to make data more accessible, yet education has not.

Teachers shouldn’t be required to be experts in data mining. We shouldn’t expect them to spend hours poring over spreadsheets of indecipherable student results, hoping to glean faint inspiration. It is the responsibility of assessment programs and their providers to meet teachers more than halfway by providing easily understandable student results plus insightful interpretation and recommendations.  This lets teachers apply their time and expertise to teaching their students, not interpreting data.

Some assessment programs are heading in the right direction, such as mCLASS Beacon from Amplify and its novel hexagonal Learning Map. But not enough have embraced this philosophy. And it doesn’t end with just data presentation. Teachers also need to be trained to apply the results to their students, curriculum, and teaching practices. Overall, three changes are required:

  1. Make data easy to understand and apply
  2. Supply analysis and insightful interpretation
  3. Provide training on how to apply the data and suggestions to daily teaching

A circular, self-reinforcing benefit will emerge: as teachers use assessment data to improve student learning, test scores will improve, which will invigorate teachers to take further advantage of assessment results, starting the process anew.

With the right focus on improving data presentation and training teachers to apply these results to students, tangible and lasting benefits of standardized assessment will emerge and grow within the classroom. This is core to the next generation of standardizing testing — the generation that fulfills the original promise of student assessment.