*By Catalina Covacevic
In Chile, as in many other countries, we are involved in a multitude of assessments that measure student learning. On one hand, various international tests are carried out: TIMSS, PISA, ICCS, etc. On the other hand, the National Agency of Quality of Education annually or biennially administers the Education Quality Measurement System Test (SIMCE) across different grades in the subjects of natural sciences, social sciences, language and math; it conducts the SIMCE for English in the third year of high school; and it undertakes SIMCE for Physical Education in the eighth grade. Additionally, as if this was not enough, many students in their last year of high school devote much of their time preparing for the college admissions examination, which involves them taking many practice tests.
While consensus exists on the fact that the overall quantity of evaluations carried out is high, it can’t be denied that all issues examined are important: How not to assess reading levels in second grade, when there is still time to react to solve emerging problems? How not to compare Chilean students’ learning in an international context? How to ignore physical inactivity and childhood obesity, if we can measure, and with that, help prevent it? How to downplay the importance of English, a language that can open the doors to the world in a country that is geographically isolated?
However, no consensus exists on what the effect of all these evaluations is. Somehow assessments awake passions. For some, they seem the universal panacea, providing the answer to every educational problem and marking the first step in any intervention. For others, however, they represent the mother of all evils: for them, the assessments reflect imperialism, they threaten the freedom of education, and they narrow the curriculum to what they are testing – or they are used for dark and despicable reasons, such as kicking out students.
I don’t have a neutral stance on learning assessments either. Most of my professional life has been dedicated to designing, implementing, and delivering results of evaluations. In fact, I am secretly passionate about large-scale standardized tests (a passion causing my siblings to burst out into laughter). I like items, scoring guides, administration manuals and the context questionnaires used to identify what factors affect learning. However, despite my affection for assessments, like most of the people who are working on this issue, I consider them neither a solution, nor a devil’s instrument. Evaluations are neutral; they are simply tools that can be useful or useless, beneficial or harmful – depending on how you use them.
It is true that if you want to solve a learning problem, you first have to evaluate how much students know and compare it to what they should know – be that with respect to the national curriculum or other national or international standards. You will also have to identify factors associated with different degrees of learning at the level of the education system, the schools, families or students themselves – such as the socioeconomic makeup of schools, teacher expectations, parents’ education level, as well as students’ beliefs and values – to alter those that are possible to alter and, in the cases where this is not possible, to identify populations at risk with the goal of providing them with more support. Additionally, it is interesting to compare the learning outcomes of Chile with other countries, to know how we are doing and also to have points of reference.
Nevertheless, the assessment alone will not solve anything. It forms a first step that is needed to be able to undertake interventions. However, just because we are evaluating more, we are not achieving better results. When we want to lose weight, we also do not expect that merely weighing ourselves continuously over a long period of time will allow us to achieve good results without having to do anything else. Instead, the essential aspect of losing weight lays in changing one’s lifestyle. Weighing oneself only serves to evaluate the results of those changes in an orderly manner (without having made changes in one’s lifestyle, it doesn’t make any sense to weighh oneself frequently).
However, evaluations are not bad in themselves either, although they can be used for improper purposes or can cause unexpected effects. For example, it shouldn’t be that evaluations exert so many consequences for schools that they are encouraged to abandon the teaching of those subjects that are not evaluated by the assessments. It is neither desirable that schools use the results of SIMCE as an excuse not to accept low-performing students nor that schools prohibit certain students from attending school the day of the test. It further is inappropriate to use results to judge schools and teachers from very different contexts. Finally, it is not ideal that teaching time is significantly reduced due to the large number of evaluations to be administered.
Another important issue we cannot forget is that assessments of this kind mean a significant investment of resources by governments. Therefore, even if we know with 100% certainty that a particular assessment will not result in any harm, we should ask ourselves whether it will provide a contribution and if it forms the best way of using these resources.
To conclude, the assessments themselves are neither good nor bad. They are simple tools of great potential power, which must accompany an intervention strategy. If used well, they are useful, but they also can be harmful. In some intermediate cases, it further can be that they result in no effects whatsoever or merely become a bad use of resources, whether of governmental finances or student learning time. In the following blogs posts we will examine other aspects of student learning assessments, such as bias and what the appropriate level of difficulty is that the evaluations should have. For now, we leave you with the following question: How are you using the results of these assessments?
*Catalina Covacevich is a specialist in the Education Division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), based in the country office of Chile. Her area of specialization is student and teacher assessment.