P. David Pearson’s Views on Assessment

On the second day of the IRA World Congress P. David Pearson was the plenary session speaker. David Pearson is a professor and former Dean of Education at the University of California-Berkeley. He writes and researches on educational issues, especially literacy assessment. His talk for the World Congress was titled, “Reading Assessment: Still Time for a Change.” He talked about the history of reading assessment in the United States, challenges in the current testing system, and his hopes for the future.

A few points that he made:

  • Tests aren’t good or bad; they are good or bad for particular purposes or for making particular decisions or for providing particular information. For example, a norm referenced standardized test is good for comparing how large groups of students compare in achievement in the tested areas but it is not good for making decisions about a particular student.
  • Many assessments/tests give us information about what the child can do, but just because we know it doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile to know. For example, timing a child on how quickly that child can read a list of nonsense words gives us information about how well that child reads nonsense words. However, since reading nonsense words has nothing to do with real reading, this is basically worthless information.
  • No educational decision or judgment should ever be made on the basis of just one assessment. No test can tell us everything important about a child. Using several assessments provides a better basis for decision making.
  • Test results are always estimates; they are approximations of the truth. Tests deal with limited content in specific, narrow contexts.
  • Any time high stakes are attached to tests, teaching will narrow to focus on the test. It does not matter how good the test is; teaching always narrows, even when the teachers are not consciously doing so.
  • A focus on passing the test does not ensure true learning, though it may result in good test scores. David discussed results of a study looking at two schools. School A focused on information that would be tested. School B didn’t worry much about the test. The study looked at test scores and authentic learning levels for both schools. School A scored higher on the tests, but much lower on authentic learning while School B had approximately the same levels on the test scores and authentic learning. Even though School A had higher test scores than School B, they had lower levels of authentic learning.
  • Curriculum and instruction should drive assessment; assessment should not drive the curriculum. This means that assessments should be developed out of the curriculum and instruction—how is it valid otherwise?
  • The truly important thing to know is how far the learning will travel. We want the strategies, skills, concepts, facts, and processes that the students learn in one area to be generalized to other areas. Most current assessments and tests only focus on the limited contexts of specific facts.
  • In order to assess reading comprehension, the questions the students ask are probably more important than how students can answer questions (especially teacher-posed questions).

David said that he would be posting his powerpoint slides at www.scienceandliteracy.org.

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