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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 06/24/2010

A better way to evaluate students and schools

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Monty Neill, interim executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, a non-profit organization that works to end the flaws and misuse of standardized testing.

By Monty Neill
Polls show that most Americans agree we need a better way to assess students and evaluate schools. The question is, what should we do? Any new system must provide reasonable accountability and use assessments that improve student learning and school quality. It must also get us out of the downward spiral of producing schools that do little more than teach children how to fill in bubbles on multiple-choice tests.

FairTest and our allies propose a robust and effective assessment and evaluation system that would include three key components: limited large-scale standardized testing, extensive school-based evidence of learning, and a school quality review process.

Large-scale tests. Many nations with better and more equal education outcomes test only one to three times before high school graduation and largely avoid multiple-choice questions. The emphasis is on quality, not quantity. Better tests would help U.S. schools, but based on criteria set by the Department of Education, the next batch of tests aren’t likely to be much better than current ones. And we’d still waste time and money testing too many grades. Congress should require statewide tests once each in elementary, middle and high school. States could cut back to what many did before No Child Left Behind, when improvement was faster than it is now.

Local and classroom evidence of learning. If you want to find out what kids know and can do, look at their actual work. This is what many other countries do. By focusing on the classroom, we can assess important learning standardized tests cannot, such as research projects, oral presentations, essays, problem solving and using computers in real situations. This enables us to use multiple measures to evaluate higher order thinking skills and deeper knowledge than do standardized tests. High-quality assessment helps improve teaching and learning.

Building the system on local evidence means trusting teachers. Some do need to improve how well they assess, so ensuring teachers can work and learn together is important. This is what high-performing nations have done.

Some other countries have systems where samples of student work from each classroom are independently re-scored to verify a teacher’s initial score ("moderation"). These experiences show that moderation can be done well enough to ensure local quality and provide comparability across a state.

Schools would explain their results in an annual report. Parents, communities and the state can review it.

School quality reviews (SQR). The SQR is the central tool for school evaluation in places such as England and New Zealand. Their systems focus on a comprehensive school review by a team of qualified professionals every four to five years. This leads to a report describing the school and recommending actions for improvement. Testing is limited.

Countries with a more balanced, comprehensive, improvement-focused assessment and evaluation system produce better educational results with fewer harmful side effects than does the U.S.

In FairTest’s proposal, the core of the system is local evidence. This is cross-checked and verified by limited statewide testing and periodic school quality reviews. It is a system that trusts but verifies, that enables comprehensive reviews, and that frees and supports educators to do their jobs well while holding them accountable in a fair way. Our nation would get better assessment, adequate comparability, and helpful accountability. These improvements will help all schools, especially those serving mainly low-income children.

Real school reform requires a lot more than assessment reform, including reasonable accountability, coherent improvement strategies, and ensuring all children have a strong opportunity to learn. But without healthy assessment and evaluation, there cannot be real and sustainable school improvement.

For more detail, see


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 24, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Standardized Tests  | Tags:  accountability in schools, accountablity, assessment, fairtest, how to assess statements, how to evaluate schools, monty neill, multiple measures and student assessment, student assessment through multiple measures, teacher evaluation system, the accountability movement  
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I think in general, this overall plan is a sensible (responding to our senses!)outline and would be balanced in its approach, sorely missing from our current

Having working with both special needs students and now a grandmother of two young ones,I would add this to the Elementary proposals:

1. Early assessments in K-3, with follow-up depending on concerns - to pick up on deficits and obtaining a baseline on each student. Early intervention is key when special needs have to be addressed.

2. Because students' developmental levels are so variable at the K-3 ages, it makes sense to have at least one more standardized test by 3rd grade and not wait until 5th or 6th grade.

?Okay, I'm getting old, but whatever happened to the IOWA basic skills tests and others like them that we baby boomers all took in the 50s and 60s? They were standarized and given at regular intervals so that schools had testing outside their
own districts to reference?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 24, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

How can we get this message to Congress? That's the question. We know Arne Duncan won't listen.

Posted by: aby1 | June 24, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

This is similar to the evaluation system that Montgomery County uses for teachers. This is the reason they refused to sign on the MD's RTTT application. They didn't want to change their evaluation system which is much more comprehensive. As a teacher, I know that I will be evaluated on what really counts!

Posted by: musiclady | June 24, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

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