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The Risks of NOT Testing -- How the Absence of Data Impacts Students

Dr. David Franklin
Written By Dr. David Franklin
On Jan 26, 2021
4 minute read

How can the absence of assessment data impact a student's potential for learning?

The notion of assessment in education has taken a negative tone in the last two decades. No Child Left Behind ushered in an era of high stakes testing that focused more on a summative score than progress made towards a goal or the opportunity to improve. A backlash followed as school districts across the country downplayed assessment results, parents opted out of their child being assessed, and students purposely performed poorly as the results had no bearing on their futures. Sadly, the whole point of conducting assessments has been muddied and lost over time. However, it is time to re-examine the purpose of assessments and how not testing can affect a child and their potential for learning. 


Assessments are carried out in many professions other than education. Consider a trip to the doctor’s office. A doctor is going to put their patient through a series of assessments in order to diagnose the illness. One would not want a doctor to prescribe medication without first diagnosing the problem. Selecting the right medication for the issue will help the patient recover quickly and effectively. 


When we consider the doctor's office approach to ‘diagnosing’ a child’s learning needs in education, we can begin to see the importance of assessment. It is vital that teachers are able to understand what a child has mastered and where he or she needs additional support. In doing so, teachers can differentiate their instruction to meet the diverse yet unique needs of each student. The feedback that students can receive when different instructional needs are identified is more personal, targeted, and useful. 


"Learners need endless feedback more than they need endless instruction."

Grant Wiggins, ASCD


Without knowing how students are performing in certain areas, teachers are unable to provide this targeted instruction. Educators are forced to work in the “one size fits all” world of instruction. This method might work for students in the middle of the learning spectrum but can be damaging for students who need extra or specialized support and for students who need advanced opportunities. 


The comfort zone analogy also fits in well at this point in the conversation.


Comfort zone analogy


Without the knowledge of where our students fall on the learning continuum, we inevitably keep them (and us) in the “comfort zone”. Teaching directly from the textbook and using the pacing guide can be more comfortable for some teachers – it is the safe path but does not require out-of-the-box thinking. However, by not exploring more nuanced and creative learning methods, students may get stuck at their current learning mastery levels or never fully reach their learning potential. In order to push students forward, teachers need to be able to hone-in on standards and concepts that students are struggling with to focus on individual learning needs. 


Learning is a cyclical process. Concepts are not mastered in a vacuum. They are building blocks used to understand future concepts for years to come. Assessment data can provide educators with valuable information on concepts not learned during previous grade levels that are negatively affecting the learning happening in the current grade level. Let’s equate a students’ knowledge base to a block of Swiss cheese. While most of the block is solid, there are holes of different sizes throughout the cheese that were formed at different times during the cheese making process. Assessment results can help educators identify those holes and give indicators on what type of instruction needs to be given in order to fill those holes. 


Assessment results can also benefit teachers by helping them understand how well their instruction is being absorbed by students and guiding additional instruction where needed. While it is easy to focus on student learning as the main reason for assessment, we should also look into the value that it brings to teachers. Low assessment results not only indicate that a student did not grasp the concepts that were taught, but also can be interpreted as that the teacher’s instruction was not strong enough to reach all learners. This notion brings teachers away from the narrative of “I taught it, therefore my students should have learned it”. Not all instruction is equal. Students will learn best from dynamic and engaging instruction that is personalized to meet their needs. Teachers need to use assessment as feedback for themselves in order to improve upon their craft and to design new ways to reach their students.


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