Susan Engels strikes another positive blow for reasonable discourse in thinking about education in her piece entitled Scientifically Tested Tests ; she is great asset for those of us trying to chart the right middle course.   In contrast to Alfie Kohn on the left, and, let’s say, Secretary Duncan on the right, she holds and articulates the thoughtful centrist position that this blog is seeking for regularly.

By shifting our assessment techniques, we would learn more of what we really need to know about how children, teachers and schools are doing. And testing could be returned to its rightful place as one tool among many for improving schools, rather than serving as a weapon that degrades the experience for teachers and students alike.

This centrist course is not one of obsessively testing with multiple choice scantrons; it is also not about summarily judging and condemning schools and teachers on narrow bases.

there are few indications that the multiple-choice format of a typical test, in which students are quizzed on the specific formulas and bits of information they have memorized that year, actually measures what we need to know about children’s education.

These tests are easy to administer, but to what return?  I am not the first to say that frequent multiple choice testing reminds us of the old joke of looking for the keys under the lightpost; they were dropped in the dark, but the man looks under the light because he can’t (easily) see in the dark.

There are flashlights; let’s use them.    Engels, whom I have praised here before, offers interesting suggestions about authentic assessments that do get at what we really want students to learn.

we should come up with assessments that truly measure the qualities of well-educated children: the ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; the capacity to know when a problem calls for mathematics and quantification; the agility to move from concrete examples to abstract principles and back again; the ability to think about a situation in several different ways; and a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live.

Yes.  Now, I am not entirely impressed with her specific suggestions.  I like her suggestion of asking students to critique a science experiment to assess scientific understanding;or  to recount, at length, a complicated narrative; or to respond to writing prompts that ask them to take different perspectives.   (Her notion that we could measure kids literacy by asking them to identify author’s names from a list doesn’t do much for me).    I wish she had taken it further, discussing in more detail the roles in which rubrics for projects, and performance tasks, could elevate assessment; and of course, and I know I am a broken record here sometimes, I wish she had endorsed specifically the CLA/CWRA.

But in an age of discourse with more heat than light on the topic of assessment, it is great to have Engels’ voice.  This is a message I am bringing tomorrow morning to a conference hosted by the US Department of Education: let’s assess, but be choose in how we do so.   Thank you, Dr. Engels.