Question: Is assessment beneficial or harmful to students?
Joel Klein: So I think assessment is critical. It’s not the only thing. But let’s be candid about it, there are two or three critical things in an education. One is knowledge acquisition and that’s important, make no mistake about it. If you don’t understand what happens in history, if you can’t do fundamental mathematics, if you don’t know how to add, subtract, divide, multiply, if you don’t know what basic algebraic formulas are about, if you don’t understand how to read and know what Ethan Frome or the Iliad is about; that’s knowledge and skills acquisition. And it’s really important. It’s not the only thing but it’s important and we shouldn’t forgo it.
I don’t want kids who are creative but can’t read to graduate from a public school system because they won’t do well.
By the same token, I don’t want kids who don’t have basic knowledge about core subjects, art, music, science, math, social studies, history, what have you. We also want to foster an environment which encourages creativity, encourages dynamic thinking, encourages people working together on problem solving. And we need ways to measure that, good exams, have good essays.
When I taught federal courts and federal jurisdiction at Georgetown at the Law School, the exams were a key part of the work we did. But the exams tested whether people could analyze a problem, think it through logically, rationally as part of any assessment.
If all you’re doing is knowledge acquisition then you’re not assessing the full range. But we can assess the full range. But don’t fall into the trap which I think a lot of people fall into, is people don’t want accountability, people don’t want to test knowledge acquisition and skills acquisition. And so they walk away from testing. And I’d be the first to say we need to do a much better job on testing.
A lot of our tests are not good tests. And one of the reasons I would support national standards and national testing is to make sure that the tests were rigorous, meaningful, engage people in problem solving.
I would even, as part of one’s assessment, have a group work together because group problem solving is going to become more and more a skill in the 21st century as we work together in small groups to figure out dynamic inquiry-based learning; all of that can be incorporated.
But if you don’t test whether people are getting it, then you can live under the illusion that they got it without the proof that they’re getting it. And so to me the challenge is to make sure the tests are rigorous, that they test the full range of things, but don’t walk away from assessment.
When I went to public school, every Friday we got tested on vocabulary. And you know what? It was a way to make sure you know what assiduous meant, and that’s very important. And we got tested on math and if I got things wrong, then I went back to try to learn them and my teacher went back to try to help me understand them.
Now if all you do at the end of a block is move onto the next block, what happens is what happens in many public schools, people move through the system without acquiring the knowledge and the skills they need. And when they get to the end, they drop out or fail out or don’t succeed and so assessment is an absolutely essential--it’s not the only part--it’s an absolutely essential part of the educational equation.
Recorded on: March 30, 2008