Report urges revamping student testing

Credit: iStockphoto.comWith a nod to California, a new report suggests overhauling how school and student success is measured in the United States.
The report, by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and the National Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky, recommends alternatives to annual standardized tests. It says there should be far more emphasis on ongoing assessments of students as part of regular classroom instruction.
Schools should focus more on “formative assessments,” the curriculum-based problems and quizzes that teachers give to students throughout the school year for feedback on how students are doing, in addition to locally developed alternatives to assessments, the report argues. The latter could include science experiments, literary essays, classroom projects and, by the senior year of high school, internship experiences and portfolios that students can present to employers and colleges.
Written by Linda Darling-Hammond, director of the Stanford program, and Gene Wilhoit and Linda Pittenger from the Kentucky center, the report also calls for the replication of elements of California’s new funding and accountability system, the Local Control Funding Formula, which it praises for directing more money toward low-income students, English learners and foster children. Student achievement will falter in an era of higher learning standards without equitable funding and dramatic improvement in the preparation of teachers, the report says.
Wilhoit is the former executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the nonpartisan organization of elected and appointed state superintendents that co-produced the Common Core State Standards. Darling-Hammond is a senior research adviser for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the developer of the Common Core tests that California students will take next spring. She also chairs the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which oversees the state’s teacher preparation programs.
Wilhoit and Darling-Hammond say the adoption of Common Core, with its goal of preparing students for college and 21st-century careers, marks a monumental shift in expectations of students. Wilhoit said the new standards “require students to do things they had not been asked to do before,” and to develop “habits of the mind” and abilities to solve problems, apply knowledge and think critically.
Multiple-choice, end-of-year tests, including higher quality and more complex versions such as the pending Smarter Balanced assessments, alone won’t lead students to reach those goals or adequately measure all that will be demanded of them, Wilhoit said. The report says it is critical to stop using annual tests as the chief gauge of school success and student achievement.
The report comes as Congress is deadlocked over whether to end or amend the 12-year-old No Child Left Behind law, which demanded that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014, and partisan disagreements over the role of the federal government in education.
There also is a growing backlash against standardized tests – in states opposed to sanctions under the federal law and by teachers across the nation who resent putting in weeks of preparation for annual student tests and who oppose being evaluated based primarily on student performance on tests.
Wilhoit said the new standards “require students to do things they had not been asked to do before,” and to develop “habits of the mind” and abilities to solve problems, apply knowledge and think critically.
Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, co-author of the report.Last week, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of Great City Schools, which represents most of the nation’s largest urban districts, issued a set of principles on testing that called for fewer, higher quality and “meaningful” assessments.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in response, defended quality assessments, including annual tests, as “a vital part of progress in education.” But Duncan acknowledged that in some places, tests are “dominating the calendar and culture of schools and causing undue stress for students and educators.”
Earlier this year, Reps. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced a bill, supported by the National Education Association, that would require testing math and reading only once in elementary, middle and high school. The Stanford/University of Kentucky report backs this approach, proposing that students take only parts of the math or reading exam. The advantage is that students can be given more complex, multi-step problems without lengthening the time of the test. The disadvantage is that such “matrix scoring” produces school- or district-wide results, rather than individual scores.
Signs of innovation
Duncan has granted 42 states waivers from the sanctions and some of the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Some states, such as New Hampshire and Kentucky, are experimenting with alternative forms of assessments and measurements of performance. The report highlighted the seven California districts that, in obtaining an NCLB waiver, have created an accountability index with multiple measures. They will include social and emotional learning, and difficult-to-quantify qualities, like perseverance, that affect the ability to learn.
The report doesn’t directly address the federal government’s role under the new accountability system but suggests that Congress would give states more flexibility to create strategies addressing student achievement, an equitable distribution of  resources and teacher preparation. It recommends that states establish a “School Quality Review process” in which schools will be evaluated at least every five years by teachers, administrators and outside experts who will look at the full breadth of a school’s life. California’s Local Control Funding Formula established the Collaborative for Educational Excellence, which will oversee the school improvement process, but it it has yet to meet. Kentucky, Ohio and New York have adopted elements of the inspection process.
There are multiple ways to achieve the new, high standards, Wilhoit said in a webinar last week. But for that to happen, the federal government, which “ created the mess we’re in,” must step aside to allow states to innovate.
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