Recalling my elementary (grade) school days doesn’t bring a lot of formal testing to mind. Instead I remember receiving quarterly progress reports with check-marks in the corresponding columns: Excellent, Good, Fair, Developing. I lived for Excellent marks. Excellent and Good marks meant my parents would treat me to a special dinner at a restaurant of my choice. I feel lucky that I wasn’t put through rigorous, formal testing as a child. Assessments at my elementary school must have been predominantly informal, observation-based, and focused on classroom performance. I can see the value was placed on the learning process, as my check-marks usually started in Fair and Good and improved to Good and Excellent toward the middle and end of the year. The qualitative nature of assessment took the focus off of numeric grades and onto thoughtful learning.
My school district did have standardized, state-wide achievement tests every couple of years. The exams were stressful for teachers who were asked to ‘teach to the test’ so that we would all pass and that the school would continue to get funding. For weeks leading up to the math portion of the tests, we would practice similarly worded problems and how to answer them according to grading guidelines. What’s funny about these tests is that all regular learning was suspended in order to jump us through the bureaucratic hurdles of the American education system.
My high school classes involved significantly more testing and performance-based assessments. Most evaluations were essay prompts that allowed students to demonstrate knowledge more fully than a multiple choice or true-false test. Numerous projects and presentations were also required. This formative approach to assessment was useful in keeping tabs on student learning and effort. I’m sure it was easy to spot students who weren’t performing at the same level as their peers. It would have been easier to get those students the support and guidance they needed to get back on track.
I think assessment activities say much more about the educational institution than they do about the teachers. I say this because I have worked at a school whose primary focus was preparing students for international university exams. The school aimed to groom students for testing. As a teacher I found it hard to adjust to the strict testing environment and the frequency of evaluations. There seemed to be far too many tests, leaving far too little time for learning experiences.