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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 05/21/2010

How to combine learning, assessment, accountability

By Valerie Strauss

My guests are Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill, 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 Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill
You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it.

Politicians sometimes trot out this homespun expression to show they understand how frustrated many students, parents and teachers are about the way the current fixation on standardized testing crowds out time for deeper learning.

It’s a great irony of the current accountability movement that policies like No Child Left Behind starve our children of time to think, create and learn in order to measure them with simplistic tests.

In FairTest’s previous Answer Sheet guest blog, we described a way to weigh and fatten the pig at the same time. The idea is to replace standardized testing as the main measure, the tool that rules school, with classroom-based measures of student growth.

Teachers and schools would assemble evidence of learning that includes essays, research reports, and individual and group projects. This way, we would ensure that students are having meaningful learning experiences (not just filling in test bubbles) and look at the results of those experiences to see how they are progressing.

Now we look at the slightly more complicated question of how to use multiple measures and growth measures to provide accountability.

Multiple-measure accountability systems use classroom-based records of student growth in various subjects as a major part of the evidence of how schools are doing.

Other factors could include student grades, graduation and dropout rates, the percentage of students who advance to the next grade, portion of students taking honors/advanced level classes and Advanced Placement classes, college enrollment and persistence rates, employment histories after high school, surveys of school climate, and, yes, scores on standardized tests.

In contrast to NCLB’s narrow approach, this collection of data paints a multidimensional picture of how schools are doing. By giving schools credit for addressing different facets of a good education, they are encouraged to create richer, more well-rounded educational experiences for children.

FairTest and the Forum on Educational Accountability have developed the framework for such a system as an alternative to NCLB.

One knock on this approach is that these types of evidence can’t be processed and reported as quickly as test scores. But the importance of speed depends on purpose. Accountability should not be about quickly labeling schools under-performing and meting out punishments, which can make the learning climate worse. It should be about gathering multifaceted data and using it to guide improvements.

Another criticism is that the mix of evidence is not as “objective” as standardized test results and is less reliable. But there’s no way to measure the kind of critical thinking kids should acquire without using open-response questions and larger projects that need to be assessed by human beings.

The question is what we really want: A narrow curriculum measured by cheap, fast, limited tests, or a richer curriculum that can only be evaluated with more complex evidence?

The details of how to process this richer set of data can get complicated quickly, but it is far from impossible.

Nebraska successfully implemented a statewide system comprised of locally developed assessments that often included classroom-based work. The state system was designed so that assessments were based on the state’s academic standards (or state-approved local standards), had consistent scoring, were unbiased and were developmentally appropriate.

The benefits, according to Nebraska educators, were many, including helping teachers learn how to do their jobs better, assess more accurately and deeply, and gather and organize the evidence of learning that can demonstrate to parents, communities and policy-makers what students have achieved. Unfortunately, the Bush administration helped kill the innovative Nebraska program.

Another good example is the Learning Record, developed first in England for literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening) for use with low-income children, many of whom had first languages other than English. The LR provides a well-structured method for assembling a rich array of evidence of student learning.

The question is not whether classroom-based evidence can be used for public reporting and accountability. It can and has.

The challenges are whether the U.S. is willing to go beyond a fixation with narrow definition of "objectivity," whether it will invest in training teachers how to teach and assess learning well, and whether it will turn accountability into a helpful tool instead of a destructive punishment.


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 21, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Lisa Guisbond, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  accountability and nclb, accountability movement, assessment and accountability, fairtest, lisa guisbond, monty neill, no child left behind, standardized tests  
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Very sensible and yet it requires more efforts... need to bring more and more stakeholders on board...

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | May 21, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

In my experience the people who oppose standardized tests subscribe to the illusion that everyone would be judged superior and all would go to Harvard and MIT if it wasn't for those pesky standardized test that reveal that most people are, well, average. Go figure!

If you don't think a "bubble" test requires knowledge and understanding, just try taking the GRE physics test.

Teachers who are not in the physical science seem to believe that all you need to know to fill in bubbles is to recognize the right answer, and that you don't need to "do" anything. Most of the time, for a well designed test, you need to work out the problem very carefully before you can then "just recognize" the correct answer.

Now you may say "but what's wrong with essays and research projects and group activities?" During my experience teaching physics I saw that most kids barely had the math skill to even be in HS physics. In addition, they were struggling learning the basic prerequisites of learning physics, such as dealing with units and unit conversion, vector quantities, and graphing data. Just learning these basic skills would require the better part of the school year, even among the better students.

So what's wrong with using essays, research projects, etc? Let me put it to you this way. Imagine a group of people just learning to play ice hockey. They can barely skate or keep a puck on their sticks. So let's not just assess them on their ability to skate around a pylon with a puck, let's assess them on something grand like their power play.

Many of these grand assessment strategies that we were pushed to implement served as little more than distractions from the types of basic skills that these students needed.

Posted by: physicsteacher | May 21, 2010 7:21 PM | Report abuse

I just wanted to add that I love the "you can't fatten a pig by weighing it metaphor'".

You also won't fatten the pig by doing away with STANDARDIZED scales and replacing this metric with all sorts of contrived and subjective assessments of weight.

Let's see how much luck we'd have fattening pigs by burdening farmers to keep detailed "portfolios" on the weight of each cow (no scale readings allowed!), all of which would demand so many resources on the part of the farmer that he couldn't afford feed for the pigs or find the time to feed it to them.

Posted by: physicsteacher | May 22, 2010 4:29 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who has actually been in the classroom knows that the standardized tests are a blessing for teachers. When students are assessed on an objective test which is not 'graded' by the teacher, then both students and teacher are working to the same end - to 'ace' the test. When, however, the assessment is created by and graded by the teacher, there is enormous pressure brought by school administrators and parents to give the student a good grade, regardless of the actual score.

There are many teachers who have been pressured, bullied, and threatened to 'ease up' on the tests and the grading by administrators. The unsubtle message is that unless dramatic changes are made to the student's benefit, the teacher's job is in jeopardy.

So bless those standardized tests - - only those who don't know what the blazes they are talking about seek to abolish them.

Posted by: segeny | May 23, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

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