Is there another, better way of determining what teachers have taught and what students have learned than the standardized tests presently in use today? There is, but it is almost as controversial as the present approach. It's called performance assessment. It's not exactly new, but it's far more authentic.
Performance assessment is applicable to any subject taught. It allows students to demonstrate their creativity and problem-solving ability more comprehensively than the standardized tests currently in use. Here's how it works. English teachers, for example, have students create portfolios of their essays over the semester. The work is initially graded by the teacher, but the grade is subsequently confirmed by other English teachers. Science teachers can ask their students to carry out experiments before panels of other teachers, who in turn rate the demonstrations.
So what's preventing its use? Although performance assessment goes back a century to the start of the progressive movement in education, it was only in 1990 that Vermont implemented the first statewide program of portfolio assessment. But two years later, the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank, issued a report calling into question the subjectivity in grading. Specifically, it raised the issue of rater reliability. Not wanting to be seen as undermining educational quality, Vermont began to move away from its innovation.
In 1990, Kentucky also enacted a portfolio-assessment program. But after a few years, a state review panel found that there was grade inflation, most likely because teachers in the students' own school scored the work. Moreover, it said that it was impossible to compare student performance fairly because the time allotted for opportunities to revise work differed from classroom to classroom.
A decade later, a network of nontraditional schools in New York State requested permission from Education Commissioner Richard Mills to use individually tailored projects instead of the standardized Regents exams in English that were required for graduation. Mills said no. Although the New York City-based New York Performance Standards Consortium representing 28 schools finally received a waiver from the Regents exams, the exemption doesn't cover the English exam and expires with the class of 2013.
There's no question that grading subjectivity needs to be addressed before performance assessment is widely adopted. But it is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. By establishing clear guidelines for grading, known as rubrics, and training teachers how to use them, reformers can overcome the problem. Even the new SAT, for example, now includes a 25-minute essay section.
Beside the issue of reliability in grading, there is also the issue of cost. Unlike standardized tests, which are graded by machine cheaply and quickly, portfolios and their variants are time-intensive undertakings. In today's economy, states are not likely to adopt assessment policies that add to their deficits.
That's understandable but shortsighted. If we genuinely want to graduate students who can compete in the new global economy, we need to ask what other countries are doing. Finland, which has the world's best schools, uses performance assessment.
Ultimately, the debate comes down to each side saying it cannot trust the other. Supporters of standardized tests say the tests are objective; supporters of portfolios say the tests stifle creativity. It's a classic duel, with students watching anxiously on the sidelines.