For decades, questions of assessment have polarized educators. Assessment comes from the root word assidere, or, to sit beside. Over the last forty years, assessment in schools has become synonymous with high stakes tests and the results often dictate whether a student can proceed to the next grade or graduate from high school. 

The existence of high stakes tests invites a more important question of purpose: Why do we measure student learning at all? Recently, I invited two young leaders, a teacher, and their middle school students into my Harvard Graduate School of Education class on Building Democratic Schools to help us think through some of the dilemmas with assessment. 

Both Ayesha Hoda and Tamesha Webb work in urban schools. Their schools are labeled as “transforming,” a euphemism because of low student performances on state tests. The schools used to be called “underperforming.” Yet, both describe classrooms filled with exuberant students learning about how to measure wave frequencies or debating the reasons why their neighborhood needs a community center for youth.  The teacher, Mr. Bradford, reminded us all to get to know our students well– their passions and their stories– and not rush to judgment.

“If we were measuring student growth on skills like teamwork, perseverance, leadership, critical thinking and even social emotional learning, my students would be at the top. They have grown so much this year: they are learning to disagree with one another about ideas using evidence; they are reading more difficult texts and considering more complex questions,” Ayesha states emphatically. 

“As an administrator,” Tamesha tells us, “you already know what you need to work on: we must keep improving our students’ skills, but we keep being told by the State and the District that we are failing. That is not motivational for any of us.”

Both administrators agreed that data is important; nevertheless, they wish for a world in which judgements about students would be about growth and not just a raw score. 

Timothy, a tall serious 8th grader with a deep voice contributes his opinions. “If I work hard at something, and then get a bad grade, I feel demoralized. I want the teacher to let me try again. I actually want to learn. But a single test makes learning feel just over.” At his school, he tells us, teachers do let him retake a test for class, but the state tests aren’t the same. His scores on those tests- MCAS-  mark him as underperforming–not smart–and he doesn’t want to see himself that way. “Students need to feel motivated to learn with good teachers. Mostly, testing doesn’t help with that.” 

Students and administrators all agree on one thing: We aren’t assessing the right thing. “We can’t solve inequality in society by testing in schools,” Tamesha states emphatically. 

Ayesha concurs. “We have students who are unhoused; students who are dealing with one crisis after another like food insecurity. Testing does not solve these issues.” She goes on to describe the uses of formative assessment–those tests that are used by teachers to describe growth in their subject areas. “These tests show how much students are actually understanding and can be of value to both teachers and students.  Teachers can tweak their teaching based on what students know or don’t know. That’s what Timothy values,” she reminds us. 

Tamesha goes further. “I get some value from seeing how my school compares to other schools in the district and in the state, but very little value from seeing how my students do on high stakes state tests. We already know those results.” 

Ayesha concurs. “In addition, we don’t get those results until a year later. Teachers already have a new cohort of students by the time the data is released. That’s not very helpful for students.” 

Both administrators talk about the value of “street data1,” such as how many times a student is sent out of class and for what reasons. “That helps us understand the culture of and climate of individual classrooms and the school as a whole,” Tamesha explains. “In my school, Cape Verdean boys are sent out of class at much higher rates than any other group. We have to look at why that is.” 

“It’s kind of obvious,” the students concur. “If kids aren’t in class, how can they learn?” In talking with young people, it’s clear that they know what constitutes high levels of learning. “We see all the adults doing these things called ‘walk throughs,’ why aren’t we doing those? It’s about us, after all.” 

In fact, when I was leading schools, we always had students participate in these kinds of activities along with caregivers and parents, too. However, we continue to be stymied by what to do with high stakes tests. Policymakers seem hell-bent on this being the only way to measure learning, but isn’t that because it’s cheap and easy to score? Anyone who has worked in schools wants an assessment system that is more complex and nuanced. And everyone wants a system that measures growth and not a static point in time. The question remains: who should decide what students should know? Whose judgement should count? 

1 Safir, S. & Dugan J. Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation.
Corwin Press. 2021.

Tamesha Webb, Ayesha Hoda, Mr. Bradford and students visiting Building Democratic Schools class at Harvard Graduate School of Education