A better way to assess students and evaluate schools

| November 9, 2010
By Monty Neill

Assessment is one of the key focuses of the South African Department of Basic education’s proposed revised education plan. Here Monty Neill provides an American perspective on assessment.

Most Americans agree: we need a better way to assess students and evaluate schools.

The latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll1 found that only one out of four respondents thought the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law – the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – had helped schools in their community. Even United States (US) Representative George Miller, an original sponsor of that legislation and the Chairman of the House Education and Labour Committee, agrees that NCLB may now be, as he put it, “the most negative brand” in the country.

Too much standardised testing?

As state testing intensified under the law and punitive sanctions were imposed on schools, score gains recorded during the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)2 assessments slowed or halted for reading and Maths at all grade levels for almost all groups. Gap closing among demographic groups likewise slowed or stopped. Too much standardised testing damaged learning, particularly for the nation’s neediest children. The test-and-punish approach distracted attention from more valuable reforms.

Yet the underlying problems that propelled passage of NCLB remain. The nation still needs rational and effective approaches to school improvement, including strong curricula, skilled teaching and equitable opportunities to learn. Society must address the consequences of poverty that undermine learning. Accountability systems and assessments should support high-quality teaching and learning.

Assessment functionally defines what we value in learning. As the old saying goes, “What you test is what you teach.” With curriculum and instruction, it is a necessary component of the learning process. Assessment and evaluation inform the community about attainment of goals, including those beyond academic outcomes. They signal problems that must be addressed and provide information on how to improve.

A healthy assessment and evaluation system would include three key components: limited large-scale standardised testing, extensive school-based evidence of learning, and a school quality review process.

Large-scale tests

When it comes to assessment, the USA is an international outlier. As Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond has shown, many nations with better and more equitable educational outcomes test far less than we do. They typically test just one to three times before high school graduation, and use multiplechoice questions sparingly, if at all.

Excessive testing wastes educational resources and fosters the use of cheap, low-level tests; while adding high stakes narrows and dumbs down the curriculum. The results provide little instructional value to students, teachers, schools or districts. Higher-quality tests would help. But based on the US Department of Education’s published criteria for awarding the US$350 million it will give to state consortia for test development, only modest improvements are likely to come from that programme, far less than the qualitative leap schools need. Tests will continue to be administered too frequently.

Congress should return to the requirements of the 1994 version of the ESEA to test once each in elementary, middle and high school. This would bring the US in line with other nations, while freeing up resources for new assessment and evaluation approaches.

Local and classroom evidence of learning

The primary public source of data about student achievement should be the work students do in the classroom. That kind of evidence reveals the range, depth and
quality of student learning. The US has avoided taking this path, however, trekking instead through the wastelands of high-stakes standardised testing. This is largely because authorities have distrusted and not been willing to invest in teachers, unlike more successful nations, such as Finland. The pending ESEA reauthorisation brings with it the chance to change direction and avoid another lost decade.

Classroom-based assessment by skilled teachers is of great value. Teachers assess frequently, but research shows that many have limited assessment skills. Thus they need ongoing training to develop their assessment capabilities. Nebraska utilised a programme of local, state-approved assessments called STARS, and New York State replaced
state tests with a mix of school- and consortium-based performance assessment under the New York Performance Standards Consortium. In these states refocused attention on assessment contributed to improved teaching, a stronger community of educators, and improved results from independent examinations to college  enrolment.

Classroom-based assessments can be adapted to students’ varying needs while maintaining high standards. Assessing extended work such as research projects far more readily ensures evaluation of higher-order thinking skills than can large-scale standardised examinations. Of course, teachers cannot create every high-quality assessment they need.

States should gather tasks that have been approved by skilled educators into ‘libraries’, which teachers can access as they need. Using already-vetted instruments will contribute to ensuring the quality of classroom-based evidence of student learning. Around the world, a wide range of classroom- and school-based evidence – from examinations, projects, ‘learning records’ and portfolios – is audited and moderated. Essentially, a random sample from each classroom is rescored by trained readers to verify a teacher’s initial scoring. This produces useful feedback to the originating teacher, enables adjustments where needed, and promotes professional development for the readers.

Research in other nations and in the USA shows that this process can be done with a degree of consistency more than sufficient for state-wide comparability. What is standardised is not individual student work but the criteria for gathering and evaluating work products. Schools would produce an annual report, including evidence of educational successes and ongoing problems, along with improvement plans. Documentation of student learning across the curriculum would then become publicly available. Such reports could be discussed by the school’s community and reviewed by higher governmental authorities.

School-quality reviews

Often called ‘inspectorates’, these reports and reviews are the central tool for school evaluation in places such as England (which tests at a few grade levels), Wales (which tests only at Grade 5) and New Zealand (which has only a National Assessment of Educational Progress-like national examination). Clearly, this is a very different mindset: instead of test results, the core of evaluation is a comprehensive review every four to five years, covering the range of attributes parents and communities want for their schools.

School-quality reviews have been proposed by the politically diverse signers of the Broader, Bolder Agenda.3 In the USA, these quality reviews would be complemented by limited large-scale testing and annual school reports, providing comprehensive evidence in which each component serves as a check on the others.

During inspections, skilled professionals – perhaps accompanied by parents and community members – conduct three- to five-day visits. The teams come prepared with other data (assessment results, graduation rates, school-climate surveys, opportunity-to-learn information, and so forth). They sit in on classes, review student work and interview students, teachers and other staff members. They prepare a draft report and discuss it with school personnel. The final report is a public document that includes an evaluation and recommendations for improvement. This approach is similar to college and school accreditation processes.

Schools with severe problems would be reviewed more frequently. States could specify how and when recommendations become mandates, some of which could require new resources, outside assistance or strong interventions. Since nations using a more balanced, comprehensive, improvement-focused assessment and evaluation system have produced better educational results with fewer harmful side effects, it makes good sense to restructure the current test-based USA system. The model outlined here can provide better assessment, comparability and accountability. These improvements are needed by all schools, especially those which primarily serve low-income children.

Comprehensive data analysis can identify educational problems and solutions. Equitably distributed resources, strong collaborative leaders, professional learning communities of teachers, rich and challenging curricula, strong parental involvement and safe learning environments are also necessary. But without healthy assessment and evaluation, the reform enterprise will fail again.

This article appears with the kind permission of the author, Monty Neill, who is the interim Executive Director of FairTest, the National Centre for Fair & Open Testing, in Boston, USA. FairTest developed this proposal with help from allies, particularly the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education. Visit FairTest at http://www.fairtest.org/

Notes
1 The Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward the Public Schools is a well-known research instrument. Conducted annually, it allows PDK members and other educators and policy makers to track public opinion about public schools in the USA.
2 NAEP has been measuring the educational achievement of students across America since 1969. Beginning in 1990, NAEP has been administered at the state level as well as the national level, providing a common measure and giving an indicator of student performance across all fifty states, the District of Columbia, Department of Defence, and Bureau of Indian Education schools. On June 2, 2010, the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) released the controversial Common Core State Standards. These standards provide learning objectives for students from kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) that the NGA and CCSSO suggest should be applied across all state education systems in English/Language Arts and Mathematics. Common standards should help ensure that students are receiving a high quality education consistently, from school to school and state to state. Forty-eight states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have supported their development. In the coming months, each state will follow its own procedures and processes for adoption of these new standards.

3 The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education is the product of deliberation by leaders with diverse religious and political affiliations, and experts in the fields of education, social welfare, health, housing, and civil rights. The statement examines areas that research indicates must be addressed to improve education. Visit http://www.boldapproach.org/

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