Assessing Assessment

Over at ISTE Connects, they are continuing the countdown on the Top 10 education technology issues facing the eduworld in 2010.  In the latest installment, ISTE’s Hilary Goldmann focuses on the issue of assessment, noting that “we’re looking for better, richer, and more diverse assessment measures. Assessments that provide early feedback in the learning process, not just high-stakes bubble tests in a few content areas that don’t really evaluate the skills students will need. We can do better than this, and we must.”

If one puts an ear to the eduground, one hears multiple discussions on the topic of assessments.  Many states are waiting to develop new tools until after the common core standards have been finalized and adopted.  Others are working at improving their current measures, with the true leaders adopting new online or computer assisted assessments to provide educators and policymakers alike with a broader and more comprehensive set of data points.  And then there are a few voices in the wilderness advocating for the elimination of assessment entirely, believing it is unfair to measure students or teachers on the results of an exam or a collection of tests.

Of course, we are assessing all of our students now.  Under NCLB, every state in the union (even you Texas) is working to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.  Each state sets their own learning standards and each year we evaluate how many students are proficient (according to those standards) compared to the previous year.  Those states that show year-on-year gains quickly become our case studies.  Those that flatline on proficiency or, heaven forbid, slip, are put on our lists.

In the pursuit of making the AYP success list, many states have been accused of lowering standards in order to show continued gains on the assessments.  And some started at a low threshold for proficiency to begin with just so they could have high marks right out of the box a few years ago.  As a result, we have a mis-mash of state learning standards. 

Don’t believe it?  Take a look at some of data released by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research last week at the Quality Counts event.  Phillips took a look at state test scores, state academic standards, and comparable international benchmarks.  We shouldn’t be surprised to see that those states with the highest AYP scores are those with some of the lowest standards.  And those states with the highest standards (and some of the lower proficiency numbers) are the states mostly closely aligned with the international learning standards set forth by TIMSS, PISA, and PIRLS.  (And just as interesting, how a state does on eighth grade NAEP seems to align pretty well with how it does in international comparisons.)

So which becomes more important when it comes to student proficiency?  Is the emphasis on how many students score high enough on the scale or is it making sure that students are working on a scale that ensures they are academically competitive with their peers, regardless of country?

Common core standards is intended to fix some of this, supposedly giving all 50 states (and DC) one common standard to work toward and, presumably, one common assessment to measure it.  But it begs two important issues, one of which Goldmann highlights, the other illuminated by Phillips and others.

First, can one single exam adequately assess the teaching and learning in a classroom, or do we need multi-variable assessments that look at both formative and summative assessment?  It it a single state-administered exam, or is it a state exam influenced and shaped by ongoing tests and temperature-taking in the classroom at all points along the learning process?

And second, and perhaps most importantly, how do those assessments stack up outside of our fine union?  How do they match up to PISA and PIRLS?  Are the offering multiple-choice, constructed-response, extended tasks and project queries?  Are they offering on-demand and curriculum embedded tests and tasks?  Do they assess both knowledge (recall and analysis) and assessments of performance (demonstration of ability to apply knowledge in practice)?  Do they effectively measure whether all students have both the skills and knowledge to succeed outside of a classroom environment?

Ultimately, we are putting an awful lot on the shoulders of “assessment” when we talk about school improvement, student achievement, and the narrowing of the achievement gap.  But if we don’t have the right yardstick, we’ll never know exactly how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.  By taking a hard look at the data, as scientists like Phillips have, and building better mousetraps, both in terms of content and the shift away from those bubble sheets, are essential steps forward.

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