Student Assessment: What Do Superintendents Need to Know?

Article excerpt

The days when a public school superintendent could be successful by being a good organizational manager are over. Throughout the 1990s and into the first decade of the twenty-first century a transformation of the superintendency has occurred where school leaders are called upon to be instructional leaders as well as managers. Increasingly, student assessment and accountability in curriculum and instruction are at the heart of district level educational leadership. More than ever before, being a superintendent means being knowledgeable in classroom assessment, school and district level assessment, and the management and analysis of student assessment data to make teaching and school decisions (Elmore, 2000; Johnson, 2002).

By the late 1990s nearly all states had implemented a state student assessment system with higher stakes for schools and school districts than ever before. And most recently, federal legislation in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 has increased the accountability pressure on school districts even more. This external call for student assessment and accountability has coincided with calls from within the educational leadership community for school leaders to be instructional leaders as well as organizational managers (Arter, Stiggins, Duke, & Sagor, 1993; Bernhardt, 2004; Berube, Gaston, & Stcpans, 2002; Cawelti, 2004; Leithwood, Aitken, & Jantzi, 2001; Popham, 2001; Reeves, 2004; Schlechty, 2001).

Today's superintendents themselves believe that assessment and accountability are among their most pressing instructional leadership concerns. In The 2000 American Association of School Administrators Ten-Year Study of the American School Superintendent (Glass, Bjork, & Brunner, 2000), a nationally representative sample of 2,262 superintendents was surveyed. When asked to rank the most important challenges facing them in their position, their second- and third-highest rankings out of 29 issues and challenges facing the superintendency were assessing or testing for learner outcomes and accountability, respectively.

In the policy environment of the beginning of the twenty-first century, superintendents are caught between the need to reconcile assessment for accountability with assessment to support instruction. Though this struggle was brought more to public attention by NCLB, school districts and their superintendents were already actively reforming their assessment systems prior to NCLB. In the Public Agenda report, Rolling Up Their Sleeves: Superintendents and Principals Talk About What's Needed to Fix Public Schools (Farkas, Johnson, & Duffett, 2003), superintendents in the focus groups and survey study of a national random sample of 1,006 public school superintendents surveyed in summer, 2003, reported that they were working hard to implement academic standards and accountability in their schools well before NCLB was enacted in 2002.

On the eve of the implementation of NCLB, Popham (2000) sounded an alarm to school leaders about the misuse of standardized tests to measure educational quality. He decried the overuse of standardized achievement tests, whether published by testing companies or custom developed by states. And he charged superintendents with the moral responsibility of halting the rush to equate student achievement test scores with successful instruction. Among his recommendations were to (a) provide an intense and comprehensive assessment-literacy program for teachers and administrators; (b) offer carefully structured briefing sessions to educational policymakers regarding appropriate and inappropriate ways to evaluate schooling; (c) implement a meaningful assessment literacy program for parents; (d) encourage the creation of autonomous parent action groups; (e) review, under carefully controlled conditions, the actual high-stakes tests being used; and (f) devise and implement more valid credible evaluative schemes.

In the study reported here we reviewed the literature on accountability and assessment in order to design a questionnaire to survey superintendents across Wyoming on their existing and needed knowledge about student assessment. …