Gordon Commission reports offer refreshing thinking on assessment

March 14, 2013 • Lars Esdal

On Monday, a commission of leading education scholars unveiled a series of reports, which call for a rethinking of the role of assessments in learning. The reports assert that the primary purpose for assessment should be instructional feedback, serving as a tool to improve student learning.

The commission expressed concern over the current usage of assessment as primarily a punitive tool of accountability. One report author asked, in his opening remarks, whether using assessments to score and rank students may be morally questionable, if students of certain backgrounds consistently perform worse on those assessments.

The reports were issued by the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment, which was convened by ETS in 2011. It is headed by Edmund W. Gordon, a leading thinker on assessment, and boasts an all-star group of scholars. Its work will likely have sway.

The reports also urge consideration of the content of assessments. They assert that “our assessments must advance competencies that are matched to the era in which we live”—such as problem solving and critical thinking. In his remarks, Gordon reminded the audience “cognitive science has increasingly shown the importance of non-cognitive skills such as persistence, creativity and teamwork.” He challenged us to consider whether, and how, we could assess such skills.

An excerpt from a press release sums up on the claims in the report well:

The Gordon Commission endorses the Common Core assessment’s emphasis on competencies such as critical thinking and problem-solving, rather than on the rote recall of information and more basic skills. The report warns, however, that the potential of new assessments might not be reached if their purpose is solely to hold teachers and schools accountable for performance. The nation must invest in the development of new types of assessments that work together to inform teaching and learning and still provide measures of progress for accountability purposes.

During the Q & A session, a parent in the audience asked a question which served as a stark reminder of the current state of things. “Yesterday I asked my daughter about her day at school,” he said, “she told me her class spent the afternoon looking over, and practicing on, last year’s state math tests.” As he finished speaking, audible murmurs and uncomfortable shifting swept through the auditorium.

Assessments of reading and math used for the purposes of punitive accountability are at the center of our current national strategy. It is encouraging to see a visible, mainstream effort to question both this content and this purpose; while still respecting the need for accountability. The reaction to the commission’s work will be important to watch.