End of the Year Student Assessments: Good or Bad?

  • Education Policy
  • Give Each Child
Steve Wilkins, Head of School Blog


Gec Washman - Carroll’s mythological guru whose name is a loose acronym for “give each child what she or he most needs” - gets involved in practically every facet of Carroll School life. Today, Gec talks about the ways a school year should end, as opposed to what typically happens.

Something is wrong with the way a school year ends. Typically, as May and June roll around, American education puts students into high-stakes tests, takes kids on an obligatory field trip, struggles to hold down the fort, becomes frustrated that everyone’s not being their best selves, and expresses relief that the whole darn thing is over.

This doesn’t strike Gec as the best way to conclude nine months of learning and growth.

The beginning of a school year is marked with high hopes and unbridled positivity. It is a new beginning. Each child comes to school hoping that this is the best year ever. Teachers and parents do too.

Strikingly different to this, endings are defined by assessments, transitions, judgment, and exhaustion. The beginning is so exciting, and ideally the ending should be equally joyful, defined by a crescendo of magnificent music - perhaps with a kettle drum roll leading to a burst of jubilation! But too often, it isn't.

To be sure, we have ceremonies and graduations that make us think we're concluding with a profound, victorious crescendo. Behind the scenes, however, there's so much preceding stress and anxiety, so much ranking of students, and for many, so much disappointment.

In this blog, Gec takes the position that high-stakes, once-a-year assessment is a significant culprit in this annual routine. The requirement to perform at one's best in the final moments of the year is a self-inflicted and unrealistic expectation for all, except those who always wind up winning at the school game. Today, schools that are paying attention to what technology offers in terms of monitoring student progress understand that the final exam concept of judging children’s worthiness as students should be a relic of the past.

Gec observes that often education puts too much credence in a single data point - perhaps a final exam or standardized test percentile - to determine whether a student has succeeded or not.

The dilemma of testing skills at the end of the year is that it is arguably the worst time to assess optimal performance. Children are tired, teachers anxiously pray for validation in their students’ final work, the summer siren is beckoning, and all teachers assess simultaneously. This creates a series traffic accidents (or to continue the musical metaphor a series of cacophonies) at the end of the year, especially among the most vulnerable within the student body.  

Rather, Gec proposes an alternative approach to understanding student performance.

What if schools were consistently assessing student progress effectively enough throughout the year so that special end-of-year tests were unnecessary. What if multiple methods of understanding student performance was built into the normal flow of the year? These would incorporate frequent formative assessments within the classroom, portfolios of student work, monitoring growth through frequent "dip sticking" to check a child's levels of performance, personalized conversations with a child about performance, multiple methods of allowing students to show their understanding, opportunities for dialogue and reflection, and a longitudinal tracking of performance.

Gec says "never trust a single data point." That is, no one annual test reveals much of anything about a child's performance. One test only tells us about the child's performance on that single occasion.

If we followed that mantra, the school year could end with true celebration of the many accomplishments of each student. We could look at trends and deltas within a child’s school year. We could look at personal growth over the year rather than judge one child compared to others.

Understanding could replace anxiety. Reflection could conquer regurgitation. Rather than teachers judging students’ performance on a test, they could form partnerships with their students as they offered presentations and examples of how they made sense of the year.

In those ways, the end of the year could be more enlightening and more positive in spirit than even the beginning of the year. The current thud at the end of a school year - the “school’s out for summer, school’s out completely” phenomenon - could turn into a harmonious final cadence.

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