Blog: The Educated Reporter

Word on the Beat: Assessments

As a regular feature, The Educated Reporter features a buzzword or phrase that You Need To Know (yes, this designation is highly subjective but we’re giving it a shot). Send your Word on the Beat suggestions to

Word on the beat: Assessments

What it means: Assessments typically refers to tests that students are required to take to track their academic progress. Increasingly, those results are also being used to evaluate teacher effectiveness. More broadly, assessments are quantitative and qualitative measures of an individual’s skills, knowledge and abilities. In education settings, assessments typically fall into two categories: either to measure performance (summative) or to guide a teacher’s instruction and a student’s learning (formative).

Why it matters: Arguably the backbone of efforts to improve school accountability and boost student achievement, assessments have grown in breadth, depth, and weight. Though the word is often used interchangeably with “tests,” the intended definitions of the users can widely vary. So is that lack of clear definitions a problem? It could be, says Kathleen Porter-Magee, senior director of the High Quality Standards Program for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

“A test is just one tool of many that you can use,” Porter-Magee told me. “It’s important to remember it paints a more narrow picture than a comprehensive assessment.” For teachers, a test might be used to measure their content knowledge. But a fuller assessment “wouldn’t stop there,” Porter-Magee said. “It might also include observations of the teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom, and input from students and parents.”

Who’s talking about it: There’s been a dramatic surge in recent months of high-profile campaigns at local and state level challenging what’s seen as too much testing. Teachers in Seattle have refused to administer a high-stakes exam, high schoolers marched on the Rhode Island Department of Education, and Texas is reconsidering the role testing plays in its school improvement plans. Colorado English teacher Don Batt went with an aquatic analogy to describe his dismay at the “drudgery” of his state’s standardized test requirements:

“Those test-creators live in an ocean of adult assumptions about how children use language — about how children reason,” Batt wrote in an op-ed for the Denver Post. “They breathe in the water of their assumptions through the gills of their biases. But the children have no gills. They drown in the seas of preconceptions.”

Despite the recent pushback, more assessments – including those tied to the new Common Core State Standards – are on the horizon for most of the nation’s public school students. At the same time, assessments are being factored into everything from a teacher’s job performance to whether a state is in compliance with federal education law.

Want to know more? FairTest, a national advocacy organization, is tracking coverage of the growing resistance to perceived over-reliance on testing. My recent post looking at that national trend can be found here. You can also read my Q&A with Center on Education Policy researcher Shelby McIntosh on the changing landscape for high school exit exams. If you are an education writer looking for the latest research, and ideas to help guide your reporting,  check out EWA’s Story Starter online resource on Standards & Testing.


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