Tests are supposed to be a sampling. The idea is this: Because it is impractical to test the whole domain of knowledge and skills that we hope a child will learn this year, we will pick a random sub-set of the domain of all skills and knowledge and test the child on those. If the child does well on the sub-set, then we hope to be able to infer that she would have done roughly as well on learning the whole domain.
One can think about this as sipping the soup. Because it is impractical to eat all of the soup to see if all of it is good, we stir the soup and taste just a spoonful. We infer that the flavor of the spoonful is a good representation for the rest of the soup.
Extending this analogy, a good test is the spoon and the domain of all of the skills and knowledge taught in the class is the soup. When we attach high-stakes to the test; when we teach to the test; when we designate the standards that are tested to be PowerStandards then we are, in effect, spending our time worrying about the spoonful and neglecting the soup.
In Oakland Unified School District, we have an exam that does just that. It is the 10th and 11th grade History Writing Assessment. The district expects that every sophomore and junior learn how to interpret primary source documents and create and argument answering a deep question on a topic in history. The topic is randomly selected from the body of topics that students study. In the summer, teachers organize the document set and write the question. Our idea is that the job students doing analyzing the documents and writing the essay will be representative of the job they would have done on any topic from their class given an appropriate set of documents.
Not only does this assessment pass my spoon test – it really does give us a representative sample by which we can infer the performance of a student about any topic covered in the class – it also is authentic. It is the work that real historians do. Real historians don’t read chapter 5 section 3 of a textbook. Real historians do not take quizzes on Friday nor do they take test at the end of a unit. On the contrary, real historians search for primary sources, they read and interpret them, create an argument, and they write.