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MEANINGFUL MEASUREMENT: Alliance Conference Examines the Role of Assessments in Improving High School Education in the Twenty-First Century

“Assessments need to be regarded as positive in the educational process.”

The growing support for a state-led effort to develop common, national standards, the provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that encourage states to improve their standards and assessments, and the upcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have led policymakers at all levels to pay increasing attention to the “next generation” of assessments. That was the message that Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise delivered in his opening remarks at “Meaningful Measurement: The Role of Assessments in Improving High School Education in the Twenty-First Century.” The April 14 conference featured educators, policymakers, congressional staff, and other key stakeholders who discussed key issues around the development and use of assessments and the appropriate federal role in addressing them.

“Assessments need to be regarded as positive in the educational process,” Wise said. “How can they help inform and improve instruction? How can they assist the teacher and the student? The assessment landscape is broad and complex. As a nation, we need to value the wide range of assessment tools that are available and use them in ways that are appropriate, and more valuable than burdensome.”

Unfortunately, as the audience learned during the first panel, current assessments—especially at the high school level—typically are less valuable and more burdensome. As explained by Scott Palmer, partner and cofounder of EducationCounsel, LLC, current high school assessments tend to “not play the core role that we want and need them to play in terms of promoting college- and work-readiness, providing timely information for early intervention, and driving teaching and learning in a meaningful way.”

David Coleman, founder of Student Achievement Partners, LLC, agreed and noted that the best thing that we can say about the expansion of testing is that it “shines a bright light and has allowed us to see things that were otherwise hidden, but critics would say that we knew these things before.” Instead of merely measuring how far education has come, Coleman said that assessments should also play a positive role in driving performance. He outlined some fundamental changes that will need to occur in terms of assessment and standards to assume this role.

First, he said that common or national standards would only be useful if academic standards are fewer, clearer, and higher. “Until you have a core body of standards that truly, honestly, is what kids need to know, assessment will seem a sham because no one believes what it’s measuring is really essential or worthwhile,” he said. Second, Coleman said that assessments must hold accountable the teachers who deliver instruction if it is to improve instruction. He added that all of our current accountability instruments “focus on the kid and the school and leave the teacher largely untouched even though all research says that the single most important thing to accelerating the learning of poor children is to have a highly effective teacher teach them.” Finally, Coleman said that core tests must achieve quality, timeliness of results, and transparency of growth, and that formative assessment must become a breakthrough science, not just “more testing.”

Palmer noted that there is change underway, and that some states and districts are moving toward college- and career-ready assessments in a variety of forms. He also discussed the role that the federal government will play in driving change, especially in regards to the stimulus bill, as well as the challenges such as cost, time on testing, and institutional and corporate interests that could slow the pace of reform.

The second panel of the day examined the current assessment landscape, with a focus on international testing, testing students with disabilities, and the role of technology in shaping the future of assessments. As noted by Stephen Chappuis, executive director of the ETS Assessment Training Institute, the number of tests that students are given is dramatically higher than just a few years ago. At the same time, he warned that the increased testing must be accompanied by a focus on the quality of tests. “The decisions that we’re going to be making about standards—some of them high stakes decisions—are directly related to the quality of the assessments,” he said.

Raymond Pecheone, co-executive director of the School Redesign Network LEADS at Stanford University, examined the sharp differences between the forms of testing used in the United States and the performance-based assessments used in other higher-achieving countries. He noted that while most tests in the United States are multiple-choice, tests in other countries tend to use primarily open-ended and essay questions.

The third panel provided a view from the ground on the role of assessments in driving success at the local and district levels and explored the potential for the same to occur at the state level. Jeff Gilbert, principal of Hillside High School (CA) discussed ways that his school was using assessments, including schoolwide digital portfolios and benchmark assessments to evaluate students and improve teaching and learning. Arthur VanderVeen, executive director of assessment and knowledge management at the New York City Department of Education, explained how New York City uses student assessment data to diagnose student needs, prescribe effective treatments, and evaluate schools and student instruction.

The last panel of the day featured congressional staff who discussed how the stimulus bill and the upcoming reauthorization of NCLB could impact what assessments need to do and what they should look like. Bethany Little, chief education counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, talked about the role that the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund that was included in the stimulus bill would influence how we think about assessments and NCLB. “The way that the Race to the Top funds are used and what values are pushed through [the fund] will tell you quite a bit about the direction of assessment for federal policy in the years to come,” she said.

Little also talked about the movement away from proficiency and toward college- and work-readiness. She said that much has been learned about assessment at a policy level since NCLB was written in 2001 and that will inform what can be done differently and better during the upcoming reauthorization. “[We need to] make sure that the assessment isn’t the end in and of itself, but that we use that assessment to inform policymaking and that we use it to drive toward school improvement and change.”

Celia Hartman Sims, senior policy advisor to Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) observed that the secondary piece had been largely left out of the last reauthorization and talked about the “awakening” that was occurring about how the middle and high school pieces “cannot be left out much longer if we’re going to truly have a twenty-first-century competitive workforce.”

Video and other materials from the conference are available at

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