Assessment Standards Are To Guide The Design Of Exemplary Plans And Practices

Assessment is defined as the collection and interpretation of information or data for the purpose of making educational decisions. Decisions about the nature of the information to be collected, as well as its interpretation, are made with reference to purpose.

The evaluation and assessment standards call for assessing the broad range of mathematics understanding and abilities. These national assessment standards call attention to the fact that our most commonly used data collection method, paper and pencil short answer tests, measures students’ achievement of only a small portion of the valued outcomes of science and mathematics education.

For mathematics, such an assessment means measuring students’ attainment of mathematical power, problem solving, communication, reasoning, mathematical concepts, mathematical procedures, as well as their disposition toward mathematics. Furthermore, the evaluation and assessment standards call for such an assessment to measure the opportunity afforded students to meet the mathematics content standards.

An assessment conducted by states for the purpose of determining high school graduation, should measure students’ attainment of all the science and mathematics knowledge and abilities called for in the state’s science and mathematics frameworks, as well as the opportunity afforded students to meet the science and mathematics content contained in the frameworks.

At the district level, an assessment being conducted for the purpose of evaluating the quality of a science or mathematics curriculum should measure students’ attainment of all the mathematics or science that the curriculum claims to achieve. In the classroom, an assessment being conducted for the purpose of assigning a grade for an extended marking period should measure the students’ attainment of all the mathematics or science that the students were expected to learn in that time period.

The challenge posed to science and mathematics teachers and assessment specialists by this principle is formidable. Measurement methods for collecting data about students’ attainment of factual information and ability to solve routine problems are well developed, while measurement methods for students’ abilities to conduct mathematical and scientific inquiries or to communicate scientific and mathematical understanding are not. Many articles and books have been written about the technical and resource demands for large scale measurement as well as ones addressed to teachers about how to measure students’ attainment of the abilities to inquire, to communicate, and to solve challenging mathematical and scientific problems.

Assessment data are used to make decisions that have consequences of greater and lesser import for individuals, including students, teachers, and administrators, and for organizations, school districts, and state education departments. For students, data collected by teachers, the district, and the state will inform decisions of varying significance in a student’s life. The decision to give a failing report card grade is of greater consequence than the decision to assign extra practice. Some decisions can be easily corrected. Doing extra practice because a teacher used incomplete data to make the decision to assign it will have little impact on the student’s life. Other decisions, such as those to graduate a student from high school or admit a student to college, have great significance in a student’s life and cannot be easily corrected. In making such decisions, educators must have considerable confidence in the quality of the data. Confidence derives from aligning the measures with national standards, state frameworks, or district curricula; from using multiple data sources; and from using appropriate measures.

The use of appropriate measures and multiple data sources is illustrated using scientific inquiry as the example. Selection and use of appropriate laboratory apparatus are essential components of the ability to plan and conduct scientific inquiries. Selection of the appropriate apparatus can be assessed using a paper and pencil measure that requires the student not only to make an appropriate selection but also to communicate the reasoning behind the selection. Certain aspects of the ability to use the apparatus in conducting an inquiry can be measured using paper and pencil instruments. However, the real measure is to observe the student using the instruments and the accuracy of the measurements the students make. Evaluating a student’s general ability to select and use appropriate instruments requires collecting information about the student’s ability to select appropriate instruments in the design of inquiries across many different science disciplines. For instance, teachers might use an inquiry into the apparent motion of the moon or a planet, an inquiry into the conditions under which a certain kind of plant flowers, or one on changes in the sediment carried by a stream at different times of year.

Our confidence in the quality of the data depends also on whether or not we are assured that the methods we have used to collect the data have provided all students the opportunity to demonstrate all that they know and are able to do vis-a-vis the relevant content. Tasks and conditions under which assessments occur must be adapted so that the assessment is fair to all students including those with limited English proficiency and physical disabilities.

Students’ gender, ethnicity, and culture can affect how they interpret and respond to assessment tasks. For instance, girls are less likely than boys to be conversant with sports statistics, such as earned run average, batting averages, yards gained per down, or pass completion rates. Boys have a performance edge when mathematics understanding is tested using such statistics. Students’ culture also influences performance. Students coming from homes where they are not encouraged to question authority may be at a disadvantage on a task that asks them to be critical of an experiment proposed by a teacher, even if the teacher is asking for critique.

Even when the quality of the data is excellent, the soundness of the inferences drawn can be called into question. Inferences must be based on explicitly stated assumptions and must consider how conclusions would be different were the inferences based on alternative assumptions. Furthermore, the line of reasoning leading from the data to the conclusions should be complete.

For instance, students are passed or failed using the argument that their performance did or did not meet the standards set by the teacher for the marking period. The unstated assumption justifying the decision is that the student had sufficient opportunity to achieve the performance standard set by the teacher. This assumption, often unexamined by the teacher, is frequently challenged by parents of students receiving failing grades. We predict that the underlying assumptions will be challenged even more where state-administered tests are used to make decisions about high school graduation.

Assessment practices that follow the principles set forth above encourage students to grow in their ability to examine their achievement and judge their progress toward attaining the goal of the science and mathematics curriculum. When assessment practices are transparent and well aligned with the curriculum, students learn how to assess themselves from the teacher’s practice of assessment. Furthermore, many of the alternative forms of data collection encouraged by the national standards challenge students to take more responsibility for assessment. Portfolios are a prime example. Students decide the ways in which they will provide evidence of their attainment of the curriculum’s objectives and justify their assertions that the products in their portfolios are examples of work that meets the teacher’s standards.

The nation is in the midst of an educational reform movement fueled by the development of national academic standards in many school subjects. The advent of national standards supported by the federal government is a first for education in the United States where education is the responsibility of the states. In all instances, academic standards prescribing the information and abilities students are expected to learn were the first standards to be developed. The federal government, which provided support for the development of science academic standards, has been quick to characterize the standards as visions of exemplary student achievement and to acknowledge the right of the states to set their own academic standards and to decide how the standards will be met. Even so, federal policies encourage states to embrace the national standards. For instance, federal grants to states and local districts are based in part on the state or local districts adherence to the national standards.

The mathematics and science communities were among the first to develop content standards and have published, in addition, standards for assessment, teaching, teacher preparation, and curriculum. Assessment standards developed by the mathematics and science communities are meant to create a vision of exemplary assessment programs and practices and provide criteria for judging the quality of assessment practices at the classroom, district, state, and national levels.

National and state standards have been greeted with enthusiasm and suspicion. Educators, the general public, and even government officials are not sure about the role of national standards in U.S. public education. Are standards visions or hurdles, voluntary or mandatory, federal policies or an expression of national goals? These questions have no definitive answers and depend in large measure on whether the reference is to national or state standards. The federal government has been clear that the national standards are not federal policies but are voluntary. At the state level the standards are in some states voluntary and in others mandatory, and in some, the standards are hurdles defining what students must know to graduate from high school. Much of political and professional debate about the role of standards centers about which of these is the real role of standards in the educational reform effort. An often-expressed concern is that national curricula will not be far behind the national standards and that the federal government will have wrestled responsibility for education from the states.

We take the perspective that the roles of assessment standards are to guide the design of exemplary assessment plans and practices and to provide criteria for making quality judgements about existing assessment practices. However our experience suggests that the influence of the assessment standards is more profound and broader than most educators suspect. The processes of evaluating, designing, and implementing assessment practices that meet the national standards will stimulate reflection on our expectations for what students will learn and how we teach. Well-designed assessment practices serve to define our expectations for student achievement in ways that can be measured and suggest ways in which teaching practices can be modified to enable students to meet our expectations. When assessment was chosen by the developers of national standards to replace the term “testing,” it was done intentionally. It is deliberate, drawing attention to the many ways in which information (or data) about students’ accomplishments and opportunities to learn will fuel the movement to strengthen all features of science and mathematics education.

The assessment standards are an integral part of science and mathematics programs, providing continuous information about student progress and opportunities to learn, a powerful impetus for growth and change throughout the system. A closer look at the assessment standards and their implications for practice will help clarify the role of assessment in standards-based reform.

Ultimately, a scientifically and mathematically literate population depends on teachers’ classroom practices. However, classrooms, students, and teachers are embedded in a larger system. Only when all parts of the system share the same vision and their functions are coordinated will students be afforded the opportunity for exemplary science and mathematics education. The realization of the assessment standards depends on teachers having the necessary resources and tools including: clear and reasonable content standards; appropriate curricula; in-depth and ongoing professional development opportunities; knowledgeable administrators; community understanding and support, as well as coherent district, state, and national assessment policies and practices. Each part of the education system has its unique responsibilities.

The assessment standards place major responsibility on teachers for designing and implementing comprehensive classroom assessment plans. Both assessment standards documents assert unequivocally that teachers are in the best position to judge the quality and extent of their students’ achievement. Thus, teachers are expected to understand the assessment standards and to know how to incorporate the principles of sound assessment practices into comprehensive assessment plans. Teachers are expected to devise appropriate measures of students’ attainment of the great variety of science and mathematics knowledge, understanding, and abilities described in the national content standards. Teachers are expected to integrate assessment into the curriculum, insuring coordination among the curriculum’s objectives, instructional methods, and assessment strategies. Teachers are expected to adapt assessment strategies to students with special needs and make the strategies fair to all students. Not only are teachers expected to design the classroom assessment plan, they must find time to collect the information, interpret it, and to modify teaching practices on the basis of what they have learned.

The expectations for the teacher’s role in implementing the assessment standards are high and raise some serious questions. Do teachers have the technical skills necessary for the design of classroom assessment programs? How long and what resource expenditures will be required to develop the necessary skills in the teaching corps? Our answer to these questions raises an even more basic one: Should the design of assessment programs and their integration into curricula be the responsibility of teachers?

Teachers and assessment specialists alike agree that teachers have neither the time nor the technical expertise required to design, administer, interpret, and apply their interpretations of information to their teaching practices. Furthermore, teachers cannot gain the necessary skills from the plethora of how-to assessment manuals that the alternative assessment movement has inspired. Neither can teachers be trained in a few three-hour workshops to carry out these complex professional activities. Assessment practices called for in the standards require extensive subject-matter knowledge and the ability to design tasks that probe students’ understanding, as well as a deep understanding of students’ thinking and learning necessary to interpret students’ performance. Developing the requisite skills and knowledge is a long-term project. How-to manuals and workshops will not substitute for extended in-service professional development and the addition of the technical skills and information required for assessment to the preservice professional and academic education of science and mathematics teachers.

Should the design of assessment programs and strategies and their integration into the curriculum be the responsibility of classroom teachers? Or should the teacher’s responsibility be to identify curricula with assessment plans and processes that meet the national standards? It is unreasonable to expect teachers to develop all of the procedures and processes demanded by the translation of standards into practice.

We have argued elsewhere that the responsibility for designing classroom assessment programs should be the responsibility of professional curriculum and assessment specialists. Rather than expecting teachers to find the time for the requisite training and the time to design assessment programs, the focus should be on developing teachers’ ability to select curricula with assessment components that meet national standards. Such curricula should at a minimum include:

–    assessment exercises designed to determine students’ initial knowledge as well as progress toward meeting program goals,

–    exercises and ideas for alternative performance assessments with suggestions for extension or adaptation of exercises,

–    information about how to interpret students’ performance on the exercises,

–    suggestions for how to make modifications in teaching based on the interpretations, and

–    suggestions about ways to communicate to parents about new assessment tactics, as well as ways of developing students’ abilities in assessing their own work and progress toward achieving science and mathematics understanding and abilities.

Teachers having such curricula available to them can focus their efforts on the challenging work of adapting and implementing the assessment strategies in their classrooms. Clearly the role of the classroom teacher is a significant and central one in this vision of reform. But the very nature of this larger teacher role has additional implications. It points to the need for support from district administrators, the public, institutions of higher education, and state educational agencies.

If the principles of sound assessment practices are to be realized in classrooms, district-level policy makers and administrators must provide the necessary resources and an environment conducive for their use. Time and, to a lesser extent, money are essential resources. Districts must allocate dollars for the purchase of science and mathematics programs with integrated assessment packages and for in-service programs that provide teachers the opportunity to develop understanding of the assessment standards and their integration into the curriculum. Districts must provide teachers the time to be active and responsible participants in the selection of programs, time to become familiar with the program, and, most importantly, time in the school day required for administering, interpreting, and applying the information generated by innovative assessment procedures.

Allocation of resources is set by school board policies that reflect the community’s desires. Consequently, resources will be made available only if the community understands and agrees with the proposed innovations in assessment. The problem is, they don’t. The rhetoric of the alternative assessment revolution is compelling. Even so, the public and its representatives in government are conditioned to student achievement data with unquestionable psychometric rigor and demand objective information. Despite the fact that the national standards acknowledge that teachers are in the best position to judge the depth and breadth of students’ achievement, the public wants the objectivity that scores on standardized tests provide.

Parents who want to know their child’s standing in the class, want “objective” data to be used in grading. The public wants objective data on how well their schools are doing in comparison with other schools in the district, the state, and the nation. The private sector wants objective data on how well the nation’s schools are doing in comparison with schools in nations that are our economic competitors. Changing the public’s belief that only data from multiple choice tests is objective and gaining the public’s trust in teachers’ judgement are challenges facing the education community. The existence of national assessment standards provides some political ammunition. However, developing the public’s understanding and trust in alternative modes of assessment will require the expenditure of considerable effort. District-level educators are well aware of the need to educate the public. School boards function in the context of states which exercise more or less control over the policies and practices of local districts.

States exercise more or less control over who will teach, the state revenues that will be allocated to local districts, and the requirements for high school graduation. Assessment standards have implications for these responsibilities of state government. States can have a powerful influence on the success of the assessment standards by simply requiring that individuals seeking licenses to practice teaching have the requisite subject matter knowledge and technical skills required by the science and mathematics assessment standards. Instituting such a requirement will influence the practices of institutions of higher education. Faculties of arts and sciences will be motivated to examine their courses in the natural sciences and mathematics against the national content standards in order to ensure that individuals intending to be teachers have the requisite disciplinary understanding and skills. Faculties of psychology and education will be motivated to examine their courses for preservice teachers to insure that they provide adequate theoretical and practical preparation for implementing the assessment standards.

The assessment standards challenge these faculties in another way. The challenge is to conduct research that answers the many questions raised by the use of alternative assessment. Teachers and large scale testing experts are being challenged to implement assessment standards that even the assessment experts are not sure how to translate into practice. If the vision for classroom assessment practice suggested by the national standards is to be realized, a concentrated research effort needs to be mounted. Among the challenges is to demonstrate that essays, laboratory reports, public performances, and group interactions can be valid and reliable indicators of students’ academic achievement.

Resource allocation to local districts and requirements for high school graduation are based on the results of state level testing programs. Most states have adopted, or are in the process of developing, mathematics and science content standards called by a variety of names including: frameworks, curriculum frameworks, common cores of learning, benchmarks, or standards. The central question has been the correspondence of the content of their state and local mathematics and science content standards with the national documents.

While content standards are under question and review, many states are in the process of revising existing state tests and designing tests that meet national standards. The most serious issue surrounding state level testing programs with the greatest implications for the welfare of students, teachers, and local districts is the premature implementation of state level testing programs. State-mandated testing programs are high-stakes. Some states have set policies making graduation from high school contingent on performance on state-mandated tests. Many states hold local districts accountable for students’ performance on state-mandated tests and allocate resources and apply sanctions based on the test results. State tests already in place, as well as those under development, would benefit from review in the light of the national assessment standards. The review should ascertain whether or not students have had sufficient opportunity to learn and whether the tests meet assessment standards for measuring the breadth of science and mathematics knowledge and abilities called for in the national content standards.

Students must have sufficient class time and be exposed to science and mathematics programs that meet national standards for subject matter, pedagogy, and assessment practices before they are held accountable for their performance on high-stakes tests. The time issue then becomes the length of time it will take to implement science and mathematics programs that meet national standards. State-mandated tests can be developed and implemented much faster than science or mathematics programs. Even when appropriate curricular programs are available, it takes a year for a district to select a science or mathematics program and prepare its teachers to implement it.

Before students can be held accountable for their performance on high-stakes tests, they must have sufficient opportunity to learn. Before districts can be held accountable for the performance of their students, districts must have sufficient time to implement standards-aligned programs. Before teachers can be held accountable, they must have sufficient time to gain the professional expertise required to fully implement standards-based programs. If a testing program is implemented concurrent with adoption of standards, the results should be used only to measure progress toward meeting the standards. The test results should not be used as graduation standards or to sanction poorly performing districts until students have had sufficient opportunity to learn and districts have had sufficient opportunity to put standards-aligned programs in place.

What exactly should teachers’ professional responsibilities be for realizing the national standards for assessment in science and mathematics? A teacher’s primary responsibility is for the quality of assessment practices in their own classroom. We have suggested that these responsibilities appropriately include the selection, adaptation, and implementation of curriculum-embedded assessment packages. However, teachers need to be aware of policies at the local, state, and national level that have consequences for their students, their classrooms, and their professional well being. At a minimum, teachers need to be aware of public perceptions and of assessment policies related to resource allocation and to take positions on issues known to teacher leaders and policy makers. Some should take active leadership roles to influence policy formulation, to educate the community, government officials, business, and industry leaders about assessment, and to participate in the design of external assessment programs and the interpretation of the results of these programs to the general public. None of these responsibilities can be accomplished without an understanding of the technical aspects of assessment and how these apply to science and mathematics. The challenges to the educational community posed by the assessment standards are great; even so, the potential of these standards to ignite true reform in science and mathematics education must be realized.


Megan Wilson is a teacher, life strategist, successful entrepreneur, inspirational keynote speaker and founder of Megan champions a radical rethink of our school systems; she calls on educators to teach both intuition and logic to cultivate creativity and create bold thinkers.



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