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Assessment and Accountability

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Assessment and accountability systems leading to educational improvement are ongoing concerns to parents and educators. Federal, state and local educational authorities are considering how best to use them to enhance educational outcomes and to result in better academic achievement. In 1997, former President Bill Clinton challenged the nation's schools to participate in a rigorous national test of each student's reading skills at grade four and mathematics skills at grade eight. He stated: "What we need are tests that will measure the performance of each and every student, each and every district, so that parents and teachers will know how every child is doing compared to other students in other schools, in other states, in other countries - not just compared to them, but more importantly, compared against what they need to know." However, the use of a national test challenges the American tradition that states and local districts control education; and concern that a national test may lead to central control has been expressed.

States have, or are in the process of developing content standards. For example, to help teachers align classroom evaluation to state standards, Pennsylvania mailed 50,000 resource kits to schools across the state. Developed by more than 100 teachers, the kits contained a review of the standards, assessment tips and instruction strategies, resources for parents, sample lesson plans and professional development ideas. Chart 1 shows some of the findings from the 2001 report, "Measuring What Matters - Using Assessment and Accountability to Improve Student Learning," prepared by the Research and Policy Committee for Economic Development. Chart 2 (Page 8) reveals the growing concern for standardized tests.

Measurements vary from state to state and have encountered criticism such as: teachers try to inflate student scores by teaching to the test; tests rely heavily on multiple-choice questions; variability in student performance from state to state is not accounted for; and course standards are not sufficiently rigorous. At a recent meeting, a number of teachers were discussing testing and agreed on the following:

- If we tie teacher evaluation and compensation as well as funding for the school to test results, teachers will teach to the test.

- Testing, which teachers call "high stakes," is driving much of what is considered important. Therefore, testing is both the beginning and the end of instruction.

- In teaching to the test and aligning the curriculum to the standards, the other important needs of the students may be forgotten.

 

Data with which to compare performance across states and to see the overall picture of the American educational system across the nation and internationally is of value. We need answers to questions such as why the Czechoslovakian Republic, which spends a third as much per pupil as we do, recently ranked sixth in mathematics and second in science, while we ranked 28th and 17th, respectively. An international report released Dec. 4, 2001, by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Standards is expected to state the results of a study of 15-year-old students from 32 countries. The study measured the accumulation of skills and competencies acquired both in and out of school in reading, mathematics and science literacy. The project is called "Preliminary Briefing for Associations on First Report" from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Another U.S. Education Department testing project involves the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Cyber Education Cooperative and four countries - Korea, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore - which will develop an online database of best practices in education with a focus on the use of technology. For example, U.S. teachers will be able to access the Internet for curriculum and lesson plans from Singapore to help explain why Singaporean students achieve the best scores in the world on mathematics assessment tools.

Proper use of educational technology has made an impact on student achievement, educational equity and work preparedness. Data gathered from dozens of studies show students using computer-based instruction generally outperform students who have no access. They show improved motivation and enthusiasm for education, development of critical thinking, problem-solving and independent learning skills, and a greater capacity for recalling information. Testing on the computer as part of the instructional program is growing as more testing is embedded in curriculum software and aligned with state standards. It is recognized that many factors other than school, such as family background, non-school activities, prior educational experience, and the school's financial resources, influence a student's academic performance. Therefore, tests are a means not an end. To increase educational achievement, teachers should be responsible for judging student performance, giving out grades and deciding to pass or fail students.

Robert Linn, an authority on testing assessment, offers the following guidelines to enhance assessment and accountability systems:

 

1. Provide safeguards against the selective exclusion of students from assessments; e.g., by including all students in accountability calculations.

2. Utilize new high-quality assessments each year that are statistically equated to those of previous years.

3. Not put all of the weight on a single test; instead, seek multiple indicators.

4. Place more emphasis on comparisons of school performance from year to year, rather than from school to school. This allows for differences in starting points, while maintaining an expectation of improvement for all.

5. Consider both value added and status in the system. Value added provides schools that start out far from the mark a reasonable chance to show improvement, while status guards against institutionalizing low expectations for those same students and schools.

6. Recognize, evaluate and report the degree of uncertainty in the reported results.

7. Put in place a system for evaluating the effects of the system: positive and negative, intended and unintended.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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