This was not the topic I planned to write about for my second back-to-school piece but given some of the social media comments from my last blog I felt the need to respond. In my list of ten suggestions for parents to demand a right to play I included asking if their child’s teacher engaged in play-based assessment and then linked to a couple of resources to share. My thinking was that if teachers learn to assess children authentically during free play, the time allotted to free play will increase, and the use of standardized computerized assessment would decrease. Some readers took issue with the idea of assessing children during play insisting that it would contribute to the increase in data collection and turn something as wonderful as free play into an opportunity to “systematically assess for social activity”. To be fair I am not even sure what a systematic assessment of social activity is, but nonetheless I feel the need to explore the benefit of authentic early childhood assessment deeper.
Now I fully understand how high stakes standardized testing and the push to make sure all students are “college and career ready” has created a toxic test-based accountability nightmare for public education. I am also fully aware of how data collection through these standardized tests turns children into data points and transforms real teaching and learning into “personalized learning” or as I like to call it de-personalized learning i.e., learning in front of a computer all day (for more on my take read this article). I have been active in the fight to stop the privatization of public education since I returned to Washington, DC in 2011 and began working with grassroots groups such as the Badass Teacher’s Association, United Opt Out National, Save Our Schools, Defending the Early Years, and the Network for Public Education. I have spoken out against privatization through charters and vouchers, the racist history of standardized testing and how they continue to marginalize students of color, and de-professionalization of teaching through the expansion of fast-track teacher preparation programs like Teach for America. And more importantly, I base my teaching and research as a teacher educator and critical scholar on disrupting the neoliberal assault on public education. I am not trying to toot my own horn, but instead demonstrate that I am very aware of what is happening regarding testing and I am in no way supportive of the test-based accountability movement.
But, as a teacher educator, I recognize the value of authentic assessment. I believe that you cannot teach students without assessing students. Teaching and learning are part of a cycle that includes assessment. I remember a few years ago, being at a rally to save public education outside of the Department of Education and a passerby asking if as an educator I did not believe in assessment. I explained to him the same way I do to my students, assessments are a necessary part of teaching and learning, but standardized assessments are only one kind of assessment and they are not as reliable or valid as we have been led to believe. Furthermore, the insistence that we test all children all the time through standardized measures, is tantamount to education malpractice because it destroys childhood and education.
I do not know how to prepare future teachers to engage in quality teaching without being able to assess their students. Additionally, I want my students to use assessment as a tool to improve teaching and learning and not to punish students, teachers, schools, or communities. When my students observe (and assess) students during free play they are asked to see the child’s strengths and focus on what the child can do and not what the child cannot do. This is the best way I know how to ensure that these future teachers will have a valid option when it comes to deciding how to plan for instruction based on knowledge of their students. I know that high stakes standardized testing has turned assessment into a dirty word. But I wonder, is there still room for authentic early childhood assessments, or have we lost the ability to find the good in any assessment due to the toxic world of test-based accountability we are currently experiencing? I would love to hear your thoughts.