Farewell, Curriculum: Confessions of an Assessment Convert

Article excerpt

Educational tests, created with instruction in mind, represent an enormously potent tool in the hands of teachers, Mr. Popham reminds us. The more we know about devising such tests, the more our students will benefit.

I've spent most of the past three decades messing about with educational tests. I have developed tests, evaluated tests, served as a witness in test-focused courtroom cases, and spent so much time analyzing testing's technical issues that you might think I would positively detest tests. But I don't. I think educational tests are wonderful.

It was not always so. When I began my career in education, I was completely committed to curriculum, not measurement. I rarely gave any thought to educational tests. But my career priorities have been dramatically altered. So what I want to do in this brief article is describe how a naive and well-meaning curriculum person first became attracted to, then eventually seduced by, the powerful lure of educational measurement. I hope that such a public confession may embolden current curriculum specialists to consider the virtues of enhancing their own measurement skills.

Pedagogy Beckons

First, let me do a bit of stage setting. When I went to college, I majored in philosophy. But, as graduation time drew near, I realized that the odds of my earning a decent living with a bachelor's degree in Aristotelian philosophy were slim. I had, however, taken a fair number of courses in English and the social sciences. So I began to consider the possibility of becoming a high school teacher. High school students were, to my mind, approaching adulthood and thus relatively acceptable creatures. In contrast, I regarded elementary school students as squirming and altogether repugnant entities. So it was that, as a second-semester college senior, I apprehensively approached the offices of my liberal arts university's education department.

Having apologized for exploring a teaching career so late in my college program, I fully expected to be chastised by the education department's professors. But, to my surprise, they immediately apologized to me by saying that it was their fault that my "incipient interest in pedagogy" had not been detected earlier. After reviewing my transcript, they laid out a plan whereby, in about a year, I could earn a secondary teaching credential and a master's degree. In retrospect, I realize it must have been a buyer's market at the time. Had I bargained more skillfully, they might have tossed in a doctorate.

So I put in my year and earned a teaching credential and a master's degree. Unfortunately, my university's teacher preparation program was one of higher education's most ineffectual endeavors. The courses were impractical, insipid, and in need of instant euthanasia. I left that program altogether ill-equipped for my future responsibilities as a high school teacher.

But I loved high school teaching. I ended up getting a job in a small rural high school. The students were great. My colleagues were friendly. It was a good life. In the classroom, however, I engaged in fairly primitive decision making. My overriding mission was to "cover the appropriate content" or, employing a catchy phrase I picked up from other teachers, to "teach the curriculum." I knew precious little about how to teach. Perhaps that is why I was . completely preoccupied with content coverage. I thought that the curriculum was what made education tick.

I did, of course, have an occasional brush with testing. There were my end-of-unit exams (patterned after the numerous exams that, as a student, I'd had to take). There was even a yearly standardized achievement test that the school's students were obliged to complete. But no one, teachers included, really paid any attention to the results. In contrast to today's high-stakes tests, my school's standardized test was almost stakeless. Testing, whether standardized or teacher-made, was a topic that few of the teachers in my school knew - or cared - much about. …