What can we learn about assessment from photographs?  Katherine Schultz, a professor and dean of the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland, explains in the following post about the challenges of teaching and assessment. She is the author of the 2009 book, “Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices.”

By Katherine Schultz

The world of public education was shocked recently by the story of former Atlanta public schools superintendent Beverly Hall. Lauded in 2009 as the National Superintendent of the Year, Hall and several of her senior staff were indicted for perpetrating a massive fraud, conspiring to manipulate school test scores.

People were astounded, but should they have been surprised? Since the introduction of high-stakes testing over the past two decades, the stakes for leaders such as Hall have indeed been high, and rewards and accolades have been showered on those who produce the results that the public and political leaders believe to portend successful school reform.

I was struck by our obsession with high-stakes testing while at a retrospective on the work of photographer Garry Winogrand at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Winogrand is considered a street photographer. His photographs, taken in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, are often disarming: They capture people in motion and off-guard, displaying everyday life in its beauty and ugliness. The photographs do not appear to be carefully composed; rather they capture a moment in time. They convey a glimpse into the lives of their subjects, offering an allusion to elements of a story that we can only imagine.

 One photograph in particular stood out for me. It captures a crowd of people on a city street, each wearing identical frowns and converging on the photographer. The faces are intent, almost menacing. In the center of the frame is a young man, whose long hair, bag with hanging cross, and more youthful appearance draws our attention. He keeps pace with the rest of the group, however, and shares the eerily similar, unhappy faces. This photograph made me think about the challenges inherent in teaching.

As teachers, my colleagues and I have a commitment to educating all children. Our classrooms are filled with youth who bring wide-ranging histories and interests to their learning.  Like the people in the photograph whose motivations and destinations remain an enigma to the viewer, when a teacher stands in front of a classroom, the knowledge and potential of the youth in front of her are often hidden. When engaged in learning, students might alternatively express deep resistance and pure joy; they are talkative and silent. Classrooms contain moments of sustained engagement and periods of time characterized by distraction.  Yet without looking further and listening more closely, I, and other teachers, often have shallow understandings of the meanings behind those expressions and activities. A student’s countenance may only reveal a fraction of what is going on and of the learning that has transpired. Her silence is often even more perplexing.

Photographs freeze moments and hold them in place for analysis; in contrast, teaching is composed of many events and decision points that occur in rapid succession, and learning is an emerging and dynamic process. As teachers, we often react in the moment, drawing meaning out of interactions and silence alike, while relentlessly pushing forward with our lesson plans.  How often do we have the luxury of capturing a moment, as in a photograph, to examine later? How often can we freeze time and ask students to explain their silences, their frowns, or their joy?

So much of how we conduct assessment today is similar to a photograph of a single moment. Yet, as Winogrand shows us so starkly through his images, while one moment can gesture to a past and a future, it remains a moment whose interpretation rests in our imagination.

What can we learn about assessment from photographs? What tools can teacher educators and people involved in professional development offer that would allow teachers to take the necessary time to pause and reflect, to inquire behind the surfaces of students’ stances and initial responses? How might we adopt the same stance that we adopt when we gaze at photographs to examine our practice to inform our teaching decisions, including which forms of assessment we choose to implement?

Like Garry Winogrand, who constantly took pictures of his surroundings, the public has come to believe that more and more snapshots of a moment in time in the form of more and more tests, will give us a better understanding of students’ learning and teacher effectiveness. The indictment of Hall and her staff was a natural outcome of a broken concept. Designed as one measure of student learning, testing has become the end product of our schools. Our schools are no longer designed to produce educated citizens but rather places to produce test results.

One response to this quagmire is to develop richer forms of assessment, use collaborative processes, engage in inquiry groups to explore teachers’ own questions, look closely at students’ work with colleagues to notice strengths and patterns rather than errors. These practices are not new; there are teacher groups such as the Mills Teachers Scholars, the Philadelphia Teachers Learning Cooperative and groups that use Lesson Study to focus on student learning that provide time, collegiality and tools for conversation, talk and reflection for teachers. That districts often do not provide the time for such activities or value their pace is of concern.

This is the time of year when teaching is replaced by standardized tests in many schools across the United States. Often for an entire month, students spend nearly every day responding to questions written by people who have no knowledge of their schools, their personal histories, their linguistic knowledge and the like. As with photographs that capture single moments in time, standardized tests allow us to see what a person knows at that particular moment and as captured in the format of the test. They give us a snapshot of a person that is bounded. In place of the complex and nuanced data generated by collaborative inquiry processes, they provide numbers and percentages.

These high-stakes tests reveal little of our students’ passions and interests, or their capacity to take on the risks inherent in embracing new or difficult content or a multitude of other attributes of learners. We know that standardized tests are inherently limited measures of learning and performance, yet we continue to tolerate the practice of constraining our classroom pedagogy and curricula in order to improve test performance, replacing powerful teaching and collaborative inquiry with test preparation.

Although some schools have developed alternative modes of assessment such as portfolios and exhibitions, we still do not have large scale forms of assessment that allow us to gaze at the student in the manner that we gaze at photographs, in order to reflect on and inquire into what might lie underneath the surface. This is a problem that reflects the scale of our public education enterprise. Our schools are no longer small communities, and we no longer trust the assessments individual teachers make of each child that once were our primary basis of understanding learners and teaching. Unless and until we can develop alternative assessment practices or modalities, our classrooms and schools will be subjected to reforms and policies that are measured by limited means and constrained by equally limited vision.

We need mechanisms that allow us to gaze, to inquire and to reflect. We must broaden rather than narrow the range of inquiry and learning in our classrooms, allowing for greater creativity and individual growth. We require time and tools for imagining possibilities for educating all youth and understanding their stance as they march toward us like the people in the photograph, both eager and reluctant to learn and with clear agenda, knowledge and passions of their own.