Please VOTE DAVID on April 2

Are Tests Beneficial?

There are diverse reasons to test and assess student learning in K-12 education. District superintendent, Dr. Tony Lake, made the following comment on the topic of assessment in a recent press release:

“Over the past several years, we have been moving away from a culture of ‘teaching to the (MAP) test’ and forward toward a more meaningful, impactful model where teachers give multiple assessments throughout the year and personalize learning for students,” Lake said. “This allows teachers to receive timely feedback on student learning and personalize instruction in real time, which ultimately benefits students and results in increased academic growth and achievement. This also allows parents to see their students’ progress throughout the year and empowers students to understand and direct their own learning as well.”

I would like to comment on three items Dr. Lake mentions in this press release. First, the “moving away… [moving] forward….” comment appears to set up an either-or scenario that I do not believe exists. Second, “teaching to the (MAP) test” is a pithy statement that carries a negative impression in its current context and can be misleading if not explained. And third, I do not understand what is meant with the phrase “…empowers students to understand and direct their own learning as well.” I will discuss each below.

EITHER-OR SCENARIO: I appreciate and support the spirit expressed in Dr. Lake’s comment regarding the need for assessments that provide timely feedback, benefit students, and allow parents to closely follow their child’s progress. I am, however, confused by the “either-or” scenario set up in Dr. Lake’s comment between MAP and “a more meaningful, impactful model” of assessment. The scenario should not be framed in terms of “either-or” but rather “and”. Let me explain.

I used three types of assessments in courses I taught that are universally used in most educational settings: (1) diagnostic; (2) formative; and (3) summative. Diagnostic assessments are given at the beginning of learning units such as a new school year to determine the current state of a learner’s knowledge. My diagnostic assessments were not “big stakes” events, and I never incorporated their results into a student’s course grade. Formative assessments are those that are periodically given in a course to assess students’ understanding of the material. My formative assessments included in-class assignments, homework, quizzes, and end-of-chapter tests. These assessments were “low-stake” events so that each assessment did not significantly impact a student’s final course grade. A side benefit of frequent retrieval-oriented assessments such as quizzes is that they beneficially enhance and reinforce a student’s learning and do not just assess a student’s learning (Footnote #1). Summative assessments are given at the end of a learning unit, course, or year to determine a student’s mastery of the material. My final summative exams covered the entire course material and were ”big-stake” events that significantly impacted a student’s final grade. This, however, is not always the case with the end-of-year MAP tests being examples. These three assessments are integral to formal education, used by most teachers, and ones I used in my own teaching.

The Missouri Aptitude Program (MAP) referenced in Dr. Lake’s comment is a set of summative assessments administered at the end of each year for grades 3 through 8 and at the end of some courses in high school (Footnote #2). Math and English Language Arts are assessed each year for grades 3 through 8; science and other subjects are tested less frequently. The assessments, which are formulated from the guidelines, standards, and expectations set by Missouri’s Department of Secondary Education, have been administered to 500+ school districts in Missouri for over two decades. These assessments are not designed to provide timely feedback to students nor help teachers personalize student learning; rather, they are designed to benchmark the level of student learning at different grade levels in a school district. In other words, MAP is not a formative assessment tool but rather a summative assessment of schools and school districts. Consequently, MAP assessments should not replace, or be replaced by, formative assessments used by teachers.

Why do assessments matter in the first place and who benefits from assessments? There are at least four groups of people who benefit from, and rely on, accurate assessments of student learning: (1) students, their parents, and teachers; (2) school district; (3) taxpaying citizens within the school district; and (4) colleges, universities, future employers, and other recipients of high-school graduates. These groups’ interests are diverse and do not completely overlap. Students, parents, and teachers are the only ones who benefit from numerous formative assessments that are administered during a school year. In contrast, most taxpaying citizens in a school district care primarily about the overall level of student learning as determined by the end-of-year summative (MAP) assessments. Do not underestimate the importance of this group for Lindbergh because there are 17,000 owner-occupied households in the District paying property taxes into the Lindbergh Schools District (Footnote #3). They want to know that their hard-earned dollars are being well used by the District to educate students. And lastly, colleges, universities, and employers of a district’s graduates use their knowledge of a district’s educational standards as evidenced by summative benchmarking data to make their acceptance or hiring decisions. Consequently, both formative and summative assessments are needed.

I fully support the use of good formative and summative assessment tools assuming they satisfy some basic features. First, formative assessments should evaluate essential knowledge and skills that are widely accepted as appropriate for each grade level. Second, formative assessments should provide timely feedback to students, parents, and teachers that can be understood and acted on. Third, end-of-year summative assessments of schools and school districts should be formulated, evaluated, and reported to the public by an external entity such as the Missouri DESE. Fourth, the end-of-year assessments should be benchmarked to many other districts across the State (e.g., MAP) or nation, or relative to other students across the U.S. (e.g., SAT and ACT exams). Fifth, the same assessments should be used over long periods of time to understand and document long-term trends in student learning. And sixth, results should be shared with parents after each formative assessment. The end-of-year and end-of-course summative assessments also need to be released annually to the public.

TEACHING TO THE TEST: Teaching to the test can be misconstrued as a negative activity when in fact it is not always the case. In my experience teaching to the test is a good thing. I always taught my courses with a focus on what I thought most important for students to learn and thus tested on in my final exams. I would be derelict to spend the entire semester covering unimportant, irrelevant material and then give a final exam on material I did not cover in class. Teachers invariably teach to their tests.

I do understand teaching to the test can also be a negative activity when the teacher unduly focuses for example on (1) solely preparing students to answer particular test formats (e.g., word problems in math), (2) rote memorization with no development of critical thought, or (3) inordinate time focusing on the test material and not enough time teaching other subject matters. And no student, especially in the younger grade levels, should feel undue pressure to test well resulting in them getting emotionally distraught or physically sick.

EMPOWER STUDENTS: The phrase “…empowers students to understand and direct their own learning as well” raises a concern for me. Yes, it is important to help students understand what they are learning and why they are learning it. Without knowing the “why”, a child’s knowledge is not properly categorized in his/her thinking and their education is comprised of disparate bits of information. It would be analogous to a library without a catalog system such that new books of fiction, nonfiction, children, and adult books are comingled on the shelves. The information is present, but not very accessible or useful.

It is the latter part of the phrase “…direct their own learning…” that concerns me. How can students be expected to direct their own learning when they do not know the subject matter, know what they need to learn, and know the skills they need to gain? Teachers are the ones who provide such guidance since they have the knowledge. Similarly, coaches are needed to coach sports teams because they know better than the athletes what is needed to succeed. By analogy, children are not able to direct their own learning since they do not have the necessary knowledge to do so. Perhaps I am missing something here but it is hard for me to envision any normal scenario in which students should direct their own learning.

CONCLUDING REMARKS: I know this post is long and I thank you for persisting to the end.


Footnote #1 – Roediger, H. L., III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006a). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255.

Roediger, H. L., III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006b). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181–210.

Footnote #2 – Missouri Department of Education’s primary MAP web page can be reached at the following address, though I find it is not a very user-friendly website –

Footnote #3 –…/97000US2918690-lindbergh…/