The US Department of Education recently announced millions in new grant money for states to investigate how to reduce testing of students. Assessment – and especially mass testing of students – has become the new education political hot button. There is a growing political movement toward “wiser” testing. The federal money targets plans that recognize the need for data but use fewer tests to do it. In the midst of the current political noise, it's important to keep in mind the big picture that no one sees.

Here’s the big idea: the promise of personalized education is the integration of learning and assessment. Learning and assessment are not cats and dogs. They can live together happily, and in fact, they do. For most people realizing assessment and learning can live happily in the same world requires a mindset shift.

Standardized tests like the ACT and SAT are greatly distinct from the assessment a teacher does daily in class. There is an enormous gap between those two: standardized test and what teachers do every day, or even every minute, to assess their students. Great teachers assess learning constantly. They assess students’ prior learning before deciding where to guide students next. The big standardized tests are used for sorting purposes, to determine which kid gets into which college or, eventually, which career.

It would be fantastic if the level-headed voices could drown out the political voices. Instruction and assessment go together. Education has a long way to go to bridge the gap between real-time assessment for learning and frozen-in-time assessment for sorting. It’s unlikely the advocates of assessment for learning will be louder than the opponents of standardized testing any time soon. There are too many entrenched adult interests.

Optimism is warranted, however.  Innovators continue to find new ways to use technology, emotional intelligence and school structures to once-and-for-all merge assessment and instruction. The long-term prize is worthy of everyone's time. At their best, instruction and assessment together create responsive, adaptive, personalized learning for every student that means making every moment a teachable moment. 

John Heintz