Sitting Down to Score: Teacher Learning through Assessment

Article excerpt

Standards-based performance assessments address the need for system accountability while offering a powerful way to affirm professional knowledge and to support teacher learning, according to Ms. Falk and Ms. Ort.

As reforms based on standards sweep the country and educators grapple with ways to help an increasingly diverse student population realize its academic and social potential, the need for knowledgeable and highly skilled teachers becomes ever more important. The 1996 report of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future, emphasizes this need by pointing to teacher quality as the most critical determinant of student performance.(1) This being the case, to ensure that all students have richer learning experiences and are enabled to reach more challenging goals, school systems must invest in developing the capacity of teachers to teach in ways that are effective with a range of different learners. Without such support for teachers, standards and standards-based assessments could ultimately prove to have unintended harmful effects, particularly for those straggling students who are already served least well by the education system.

What kinds of professional learning opportunities develop the capacities of teachers to support more ambitious teaching and learning for all students? Research and experience have helped us to understand the limitations of the short-term "training" model - the one-shot workshop or "expert" lecture that transmits information and skills to passive recipients.(2) Increasingly, that model is being replaced by a more long-range, capacity-building approach that offers "meaningful intellectual, social, and emotional engagement with ideas, with materials, and with colleagues both in and outside of teaching."(3)

In this article we suggest that teacher involvement with performance-based assessment is an arena rich in potential for professional learning. Studies of new assessment initiatives indicate that looking at and deliberating on authentic student work - with other teachers, with students, and sometimes with students' families can help teachers better understand what their students know and can reveal students' learning styles, strengths, and needs. Engagement with new assessment strategies also stimulates teachers to think about their curricular vision and to consider how different instructional approaches can be used to support students' learning.(4)

These and other ways in which teacher involvement in assessment offers possibilities for professional learning are our topics here. We focus specifically on a large-scale project in New York State that has, over the last three years, developed standards-based, performance-assessment prototypes for the state's student assessment system. We helped to develop the project and in 1996 conducted a study of 250 of the 500 teachers who piloted these new assessments. Although the assessments that are soon to become operational as the New York State assessment system differ substantially from our original work, our findings have implications that we believe are useful for designing and implementing any large-scale assessment system. They reveal how teachers' involvement in assessment - both use and scoring - has enhanced and supported their learning, strengthened their sense of professionalism, and built their support for change.

New Forms of Assessment, New Ways to Learn

In 1991 New York State launched a variety of initiatives to improve student learning. The agenda for change included articulating rigorous standards of achievement in a variety of disciplines, developing challenging curricula based on these standards, building the capacities of teachers to use a range of strategies to help students achieve the standards, and designing and using new forms of assessment that better support and reflect what is being taught.(5)

As part of this initiative, the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST) collaborated with the state education department and other partners on a project to develop prototypes for the redesign of the state's system of student assessment. …