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Throwback Thursday: Achievement, Assessment, and Accountability

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"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" T.S. Eliot

Real, lasting change seems to come in painfully slow increments. Facts and evidence seem to evaporate from our minds as we meet each day with dedication and resolve and lessons are recognized, but not learned. An Education Week article, published in 1988, referenced a  report entitled "Beyond Standardized Testing."The article reported:

Schools must use a range of assessment tools, not standardized tests alone, to measure students' "authentic" achievement levels, a new report by the National Association of Secondary School Principals concludes. It calls on schools to adopt new assessment methods, including problem-solving tests, portfolios, and exhibitions. While standardized tests provide an effective means of holding schools more accountable for achievement levels, the report says, they "usually do not provide information useful for improving individual or school performance." In fact, it warns, schools' over-reliance on such tests suggests that "many accountability trains are on the wrong track or heading in the wrong direction."

These findings, reported in the late 1980's by respected researchers, called for a more authentic method of assessing (testing) students while acknowledging that standardized tests can serve as a component of an accountability program.  It clearly stated that, "standardized tests provide an effective means of holding schools more accountable for achievement levels"  it also clearly stated that standardized tests"...usually do not provide information useful for improving individual or school performance.

Since the performance measures (standardized) do not provide the information useful for improving performance, let's not try to make it so.  If we focus on those measures that do inform us about what students know and are able to do, and follow the paths that they lead, then results on standardized measures should follow.  If we continue to focus on the standardized results as meaningful, then we have to be clear about what they mean.  The conclusion: standardized tests, used for accountability, do not give us the information we need in order to improve student achievement.  It remains a measure, a snapshot in time, on a given day, no excuses, no exceptions. There have been attempts at using assessment methods that can inform and direct instruction, but they seem to be moved aside to make room for the standardized tests used for accountability. How well we are doing has trumped how we can help children do better.

Fifteen years pass and a 2004 article in  EDUCATIONnext  reported that "...evaluating children based on an in-depth examination of their work rather than their scores on standardized tests-goes back a century, to the beginnings of the progressive education movement." The in-depth examination of work refers to an authentic method of reviewing students' work over time. The use of portfolios for the assessment of students' learning can be a complex method of viewing and understanding what a student has learned and what they have yet to learn. The EDUCATIONnext article continued:

Even then portfolios were considered time consuming, but the approach fit well with the progressives' emphasis on cultivating research skills and creative thinking rather than building a broad base of knowledge in the subject...At places like the famed Central Park East Secondary School in Manhattan, Deborah Meier and other progressive educators began to experiment with judging low-income inner-city students on the basis of collections of their best work and oral examinations. They found that if students did well on these alternative assessments, they gained admission to college and tended to do well there.

It seems though, that over time, the use of more authentic methods for evaluating students' progress were overcome by the demands for the use of standardized tests to assess their level of achievement for the purpose of holding us accountable. Perhaps, it is that we do not know enough about assessment to have a voice or take a courageous step toward a better balance.

James Popham, professor emeritus at University of California Graduate School of Education and Information Studies wrote an article in Educational Leadership, also in 2004,

In education, the linchpin of the accountability system is our students' test performance. Astonishingly, however, when it comes to this key indicator of education quality, the vast majority of educators reside in blissful ignorance. Such assessment illiteracy is surely a prescription for professional suicide.

In the past ten years, preparation for teaching and leading has grown to include changing curriculum standards, growing use of technology as a learning tool, and a return to the use of problem/project based learning. Whether in pre-service or as professional development, however, a focus on assessment literacy does not appear at the top of the list. So where are we and what can we do about it?

We know that standardized tests used for school accountability are not going away.  And we should be held accountable. Yet another leadership opportunity can be found in this assessment discussion.  Learning about and incorporating more authentic assessment methods takes time. In order to balance the uses of assessments for accountability and for the improvement of student achievement, perhaps we need to make it a priority to learn more about assessments and their proper use.  Only if we continue to focus on student growth and improvement as learners, keep track of that progress, and watch its impact on standard test results, will we be able to know if what we are doing is helping students develop as learners and thinkers. That is where attention needs to be paid...do we know how to develop effective enough assessments that can reveal to us what students know and are able to do during the learning process?  Are we prepared to lead the development of these assessments while we are feeling burdened and distracted by the standardized assessments used for accountability? After all these years, can't we get this right?

Eliot, T.S. (1991). Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (The Centenary Edition). (p. 147). Orlando Florida: Harcourt Brace & Co.
From Choruses from The Rock" published as part of T.S. Eliot Collected Poems, 1909 - 1962
"Beyond Standardized Testing" a report written by Fred M. Newmann, who at the time was Director of the National Center for Effective Secondary Schools at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Doug A. Archbald, who at that time was an assistant researcher for the University's Center for Policy Research in Education.

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