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'No Child' Reauthorization Sparks Call for Better Assessments

While some folks around Washington are making sport out of speculating about whether the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will actually happen this year (never mind that it's already more than a little overdue), others are holding salons and issuing reports in an attempt to influence the rewrite.

At one such event, held today, the Forum on Educational Accountability argued that a new ESEA offers a chance to "get assessment right" by moving away from standardized, multiple-choice-type testing and toward assessments that measure student achievement in what they consider more authentic ways. The FEA, you might remember, is a coalition of education groups, teachers' unions (including the NEA and AFT) and others who have been calling for major changes to No Child Left Behind for quite some time (see this story from 2006).

The testing arguments unfold as 48 states have signed on to a national campaign to design and adopt common academic standards, and the U.S. Department of Education dangles $350 million in Race to the Top money in front of groups of states to induce them to figure out how to cooperate in designing common assessments aligned to those standards. (See blog thoughts on this today by the Fordham Institute's Checker Finn.)

At today's FEA forum, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond outlined what we can learn from the assessment practices in other high-achieving countries (think rigorous and lengthy essays and school-based projects such as the solution of complex scientific problems).

Monty Neill, the interim director of FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group that opposes standardized testing, called for an assessment system that downplays large-scale, standardized testing in favor of a mix of local tests designed and given by teachers, and state and national exams that would be performance-based.

In his presentation, Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is co-leading the common standards effort, outlined the comprehensive approach he believes a reauthorized ESEA must take to get better results (one that includes well-designed assessments, top-quality professional development for teachers, good intervention strategies for struggling schools, and social supports for needy students).

The CCSSO is well aware, he said, that it will take more than common standards to make a difference in the national learning landscape. It will take good curriculum frameworks developed from those standards, a "major redesign" of training for teachers, and sound ways of measuring learning. Whether states will be able to come together in agreement on "shared summative goals" for common assessments is still an open question, Wilhoit said.

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