Too many teachers are totally absorbed in the process of teaching, by which is meant the 'delivery of information,' and are barely concerned with the process of learning. Teaching is NOT the goal of education, learning is! ... Our major concern must shift from teaching to learning to achieve our goals. -- Shlomo Sharan, Models of Cooperative Learning
Ask the average person on the street about which types of professions require the collection of evidence, and they will likely speak of law enforcement or people in the judiciary. Perhaps they will mention researchers who use findings to prove a theory or measure the impact of an intervention. Almost assuredly none will associate it with education.
However, good educators know that evidence gathering is a central component of their craft. Perhaps they don't use the term "evidence" to describe what they search for, preferring instead "testing" or other assessment-related jargon. Regardless, we know that evidence is necessary to determine the answer to a most fundamental question: "Did they learn what I taught?"
There is, unfortunately, a gap (sometimes quite sizable) between teaching and learning. We cannot simply port information from our mouths and minds into our students' brains. Instead, we are required to figure out how best to organize and deliver content in a way that allows for the most complete transference, with deep processing and strong retention. As we do this, we have to consider such factors as student readiness, interest and learning style. We also need to think about certain variables that we cannot control, like our students' lives at home and social relationships. These factors sit on top of the primary task of content delivery and our need to assess what they have or have not learned.
Assessment is one of the most important components of education, but not just in the summative or even intermediate sense of the term. Teachers ought to be assessing on a regular basis -- what is commonly called formative assessment -- in order to ensure that the students are grasping the content and are able to demonstrate their mastery in some fashion. Whether they use quick, simple checks for understanding, such as choral response or head nodding, or something a bit more elaborate (like having students complete a one-minute paper or graphic organizer), teachers need to be collecting regular evidence of student learning before simply moving forward. And if the feedback demonstrates confusion, then a re-teaching (partial or full, to some or all students) is in order.
Let's be honest: For most teachers assessment is the least enjoyable part of the job (faculty meetings and report cards notwithstanding). We would all rather be teaching, engaging and facilitating learning rather than go through the assessment process, particularly the grading component. But we need to remember that if we don't assess frequently then we cannot really know if we are achieving our goals and making the desired impact. This may very well mean moving forward despite not having all (perhaps even most) of your students on board.
The good news is that formative assessment is not labor intensive. Often it can be completed in seconds without any work on the teacher's part. ("All right, class. If what I just said is correct, indicate that by making a "c" with your hand. If it was not correct, show that with an "i.") The key is being committed to soliciting ongoing feedback and then being willing to analyze it and use it correctly, even if that means adjusting your lesson and unit plans as a result.
I believe that tests and other larger assessments should almost be perfunctory. Every teacher, in my opinion, should have a strong sense of how a child will perform on the test based on one or more weeks' worth of collected evidence. If we enter the testing process without the ability to predict, on average, how each child will perform within the range of one grade (A to B, B to C), then I think that we're really not in sufficient touch with each student.
We all know that the goal of education is learning, not teaching. We cannot simply "cover ground" and let that suffice in our minds. While we may not see ourselves as evidence-collectors first and foremost, we do need to keep this task on the forefront of our minds to ensure that we deliver the kind of education that our students deserve.