What We Need To Face In American Education

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Assessment directly affects learning in that it provides the necessary feedback for effective learning. It indirectly affects learning in that instruction is commonly skewed toward what is assessed; and, obviously, what is taught affects what is learned. Given our new understanding of the learning process and the relationship between assessment and both teaching and learning, there is little doubt that reformed assessment practices are long overdue.

A third factor driving assessment reform is the manner in which achievement data are recorded and reported. Critics point out that the current methods do not provide meaningful feedback about student performance. For example, at the secondary level, the majority of American school districts rely on the Carnegie unit, which is based on a specified number of clock hours. In other words, students receive credit for the amount of time they spend in specific classes.

This system has one major advantage: it can easily be standardized across schools, districts, and states. However, it also has the negative effect of rewarding "seat time" rather than demonstrated competence. All too many educators can cite specific examples of students who received credit for a course primarily because they showed up every day, not because they acquired any new knowledge or skills. A number of advocates for assessment reform are calling for a modification of this certification procedure to emphasize the role of demonstrated proficiency judged against established performance standards Wiggins The problems inherent to the Carnegie unit are also found in classroom record keeping and reporting practices.

At the classroom level, grades are the most common means of reporting a student's performance. Course grades are generally calculated by averaging the results of various measures. Unfortunately, this approach can too often result in a distorted picture of a student's true proficiency, because specific strengths and weaknesses are masked by the process of averaging. One student with a grade of "C" might perform very differently from another student with a grade of "C.


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What does a "C" grade tell a teacher or, more important, a student about how that student can improve? An alternative approach to classroom reporting documents students' grasp of specific knowledge and skills. Because such a system is grounded by specific performance criteria, reports are more informative and meaningful to students, teachers, parents, and the general school community. If we wish to improve learning, not simply measure it, then we must re- consider our record-keeping and reporting mechanisms. In summary, then, a revolution in assessment is necessary given 1 the changing nature of educational goals to encompass a broad array of academic and nonacademic competencies, 2 the need for assessment practices to enhance the learning and teaching processes, and 3 the need for record-keeping and reporting systems to provide accurate and useful information concerning students' mastery of specific knowledge and skills.

Indeed, such a revolution is currently under way in the form of an emphasis on performance assessment. This book is about performance assessment from the perspective of a specific model of teaching and learning, Dimensions of Learning. Although there is growing agreement on the need to reform assessment practices, no such consensus exists regarding assessment terminology.

The terms alternative assessment , authentic assessment , and performance assessment are all used in discussions of assessment reform. Although these terms are sometimes used synonymously, they have different meanings. The term alternative assessment applies to any and all assessments that differ from the multiple-choice, timed, one-shot approaches that characterize most standardized and many classroom assessments.

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The term authentic assessment , popularized by Grant Wiggins , conveys the idea that assessments should engage students in applying knowledge and skills in the same way they are used in the "real world" outside of school. Authentic assessment also reflects good instructional practice, so that teaching to the test is desirable. Performance assessment is a broad term, encompassing many of the characteristics of both authentic assessment and alternative assessment Mitchell In this book, performance assessment refers to variety of tasks and situations in which students are given opportunities to demonstrate their understanding and to thoughtfully apply knowledge, skills, and habits of mind in a variety of contexts.

These assessments often occur over time and result in a tangible product or observable performance. They encourage self-evaluation and revision, require judgment to score, reveal degrees of proficiency based on established criteria, and make public the scoring criteria. They sometimes involve students working with others.

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In Chapter 3, we describe our model of performance assessment in detail. It is important to note from the outset, however, that an emphasis on performance assessment does not imply that we should abandon conventional testing. Instead, it reflects the belief that certain educational outcomes cannot be adequately assessed through conventional formats.

Indeed, the current emphasis in performance assessment supports the practices that good teachers have always used to assess and improve learning: an array of data-gathering methods, including objective tests, observations, products, performances, and collections of student work. Readers familiar with the current national discussion of standards-based education have no doubt noticed that our discussion of assessment reform has been laced with references to standards.

Standards-based education is a rapidly growing movement within the larger movement of educational reform. It is intimately tied to performance assessment. In brief, standards-based education calls for a clearer identification of what students should know and be able to do. The emphasis on clearer educational goals stems from the research finding that what students are taught in a specific subject and at a specific grade level varies greatly among schools, and even among classrooms within a school.

Indeed, this was the basic finding of many of the school effectiveness studies of the s. For example, Fisher and his colleagues reported that one elementary school teacher who was observed for more than ninety days taught nothing about fractions, despite the state mandate to teach the topic at that grade level. When asked about the omission of this topic, the teacher responded, "I don't like fractions.

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Again, teacher preference was the basic reason behind the variation. The standards-based education movement grows out of the assumption that the only way to ensure that all students acquire specific knowledge and skills is to identify and teach to expected levels of performance for specific knowledge and skills. Schools and districts that have embraced the standards-based movement have made a concerted effort to identify critical knowledge and skills.

These efforts, however, have disclosed a number of basic issues that must be confronted by anyone engaged in standards-based education. We will briefly consider three of these issues.

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For a detailed discussion of the issues regarding standards-based education, see Marzano and Kendall Clarifying the distinction between curriculum standards and content standards is a basic issue in standards-based education. Curriculum standards, sometimes referred to as program standards, are best described as the goals of classroom instruction. Content standards, also known as discipline standards, comprise the knowledge and skills specific to a given discipline.

Here are two standards from Curriculum and Evaluation Standards by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics : develop spatial sense describe, model, draw and classify shapes. The first standard describes a skill or ability a person might use in completing everyday tasks or academic problems.

While driving a car, for instance, a person might use spatial sense to judge the distance of an upcoming turn. In mathematics class, a student might use spatial sense to solve a perplexing problem.


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The second standard is of a different sort because one does not usually model, draw, and classify shapes to complete everyday tasks or solve academic problems. Such activities are used more as instructional devices to help students understand shapes or demonstrate their understanding of shapes.

Standards like the first one above are called content standards because they describe information or skills essential to the practice or application of a particular discipline or content domain.

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Standards like the second one above are called curriculum standards because they identify the curricular or instructional activities that might be used to help students develop skill and ability within a given content domain. To a great extent, curriculum standards describe the instructional means to achieve content standards. Some theorists describe standards in terms of knowledge and skills; others describe standards in terms of performance on specific tasks. For example, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, defines a standard as "what we want youngsters to know and be able to do as a result of their education" Shanker , p.

For Shanker, identifying a standard involves identifying specific information or skills that must be mastered to gain expertise in a given domain. Diane Ravitch , a former Assistant Secretary of Education, also describes standards from an information and skill perspective. Grant Wiggins, on the other hand, defines standards more in performance terms. For Wiggins , a standard is a real-world, highly robust task that will, ideally, elicit or require the use of important knowledge and skills in various content domains.

The emphasis on performance as the critical feature of a standard is also shared by the psychologists Shavelson, Baxter, and Pine , p. Content standards are those that refer to knowledge and skills belonging to a particular discipline. For example, a standard such as "understands and applies basic principles of number sense" is a content standard because it applies only to mathematics. A standard such as "makes and carries out effective plans," however, is not specific to any content area.

In fact, it is not even specific to academics; it is a skill that can be used in virtually all aspects of life. This kind of standard is a lifelong learning standard because it is specific to no one discipline and can be used in many situations throughout a person's lifetime. In this book, we have taken a fairly specific position on the issues discussed above. First, we use the term standard to refer to knowledge and skills as opposed to instructional activities that should occur in the classroom. Thus, curriculum standards are not included in our standards.

For us, the instructional implications of the Dimensions of Learning model represent de facto curriculum standards. Second, we do not include performance standards in our definition of a standard.

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