Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Measuring What Really Matters

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Measuring What Really Matters

Article excerpt

Halting testing altogether won't fix our flawed assessment and accountability systems. Instead, improve the system of assessments so they measure what matters and ensure that what matters gets taught in public schools.

In the past 15 years since the passage of No Child Left Behind, large-scale assessments have come to play a central role in federal and state education accountability systems. Across the country, districts, schools, and now teachers are evaluated on the basis of their ability to raise test scores for all students from year to year.

Opponents ofNCLB and high-stakes testing have long argued that testing more students more frequently won't improve instruction or learning. Opponents also argue that high-stakes testing hurts students by causing test-related anxiety, driving instruction in undesirable ways (such as teaching to the test and test-prep), and leading schools to narrow the curriculum to focus on the tested subjects at the expense of subjects like science, social studies, arts, and physical education that are important to well-rounded child development. Teachers and parents have expressed a number of concerns about their state testing programs, such as too much time devoted to testing and the high-stakes use of testing for teacher evaluation.

We don't dispute that federal and state testing and accountability policies have been problematic or that there are ethical issues with high-stakes uses of a single measure. New assessment systems being tried in many states that are transitioning to new content standards, Common Core or otherwise, are a work in progress that need a transition period to fine-tune their designs to fully satisfy standards of technical quality. Nonetheless, annual state testing programs can play an important role in diagnosing gaps in teaching and learning that can be used to improve student outcomes. Rather than doing away with state tests, we should improve them so that they measure what matters, and that what matters gets taught in our public schools. In short, we need a better system of assessments.

The role of performance assessment

In the 1990s, a number of states introduced performance assessments into state testing programs in an effort to improve what they knew about student learning. We define "performance assessment" as tasks that ask students to produce work or demonstrate their knowledge, understandings, and skills in ways that are authentic to the discipline and/or the real world. In the past few years, we've witnessed a renewed interest in performance assessments as a way to counterbalance the dominance of standardized multiple-choice tests. States that adopted the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards have realized that existing tests (with primarily multiple-choice items) are inadequate to assess the full breadth of the standards, which require students to demonstrate more complex skills and understandings.

This is where performance assessments come in. Performance assessments can tap into students' higher-order thinking skills--such as evaluating the reliability of sources of information, explaining or arguing with evidence, or modeling a real-world phenomenon--to perform, create, or produce something with real-world relevance or meaning. Researchers also have found that performance assessments can produce positive instructional changes in classrooms, increase student skill development, increase student engagement and postsecondary success, and strengthen complex content and conceptual understandings.

For example, consider one of the English language arts performance tasks publicly released by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium following its 2013-14 field test. A 3rd-grade writing performance task on the topic of astronauts assesses students' ability to research and synthesize information from two authentic sources. Students are directed to use the two sources to answer three research questions that measure their ability to:

* Identify relevant sources;

* Evaluate the usefulness of sources; and

* Integrate information from sources. …

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