Leadership Strategies for Assessment Reform: Dancing with an Octopus
Lambert, Leslie T., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance
Several years ago I heard the simile "like dancing with an octopus." It stayed in my mind and has often resurfaced as I studied educational reform and wrestled with its many challenges in my own work. At times, the arms of the octopus stretch out in all directions and become a confused tangle. Educational reform creates, at once, invigorating and unsettling feelings. I am filled with the excitement of inventing something new and the uncertainty of stepping into uncharted territory.
The late 1980s and 1990s have brought rapid, unprecedented challenges to education, requiring us to rethink and revisualize our practices. This is not the first time American education has been restructured - for example, in the 1890s, urbanization, industrialization, and immigration precipitated dramatic changes in the schools. Educators fashioned the reform initiatives of that era, following the philosophy of Rousseau and the Progressive movement mantra of John Dewey. Nearly a century later in 1983, the infamous A Nation at Risk report (1983) called for school reform, while John Goodlad's A Place Called School (1984) provided a dismal overview of the shortcomings of curriculum and teaching. Again, there were educational reformers on the forefront - Theodore Sizer, John Goodlad, Grant Wiggins. This time, educators were not the only ones to follow the lead of education reformers. Indeed, the reform initiatives have been championed by the business community.
As a result of the educational reform agenda of the past decade or more, many aspects of the educational enterprise are in metamorphosis (e.g., curriculum, assessment, beliefs about learning and instruction, school schedules, calendars). One of the most significant challenges has been apparent in assessment. With the business community heavily involved in the current restructuring movement, models of accountability and benchmark assessment have been widely used. Often, assessment reform has become a catalyst for other changes, precipitating new ways of thinking about and doing business in the schools and causing the "abandonment of the conventions that brought us to this point" (Peters, 1994, p. 3). Changes have occurred in curriculum form and function; instructional methods have become more congruent with learning theory; the functions of the school itself have begun to transform.
With assessment reform has come a new vocabulary - standards, benchmarks, outcome assessment, performance assessment, authentic assessment, scoring rubrics, anchor papers, accountability - a sea of jargon that creates more confusion and alienation than clarity. It is the responsibility of administrators and teachers in all disciplines, including health and physical education, to make sense of these new concepts. As we create meaningful programs that produce evidence of student learning and development, we will no doubt be confronted with the need to hold up a mirror and examine our practices. We should be constantly searching for bold, new ways of facilitating student growth and learning. To do so requires us to be willing to change and take risks. As Belasco and Stayer stated in Flight of the Buffalo (1993), "You can't see 'what can be' through the blinders of 'what is'" (p. 139).
In our search for understanding, clarity, and "what can be," we experience both frustration and deep levels of thinking about how to improve our craft - the process of enhancing student learning and creating viable educational experiences that produce results. From the point of view of some teachers and administrators, however, many assessment initiatives have their genesis in external forces - mandates from national, state, and local school system offices. Due to the top-down nature of these changes, they are frequently approached with little enthusiasm and considerable cynicism. Some teachers and administrators are content to do what they have always done, either by creating the illusion of change or by constructing barriers to innovation. …