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Accountability, or Mastery?


Instituting performance-based assessments that link content to skills is a promising new approach to redesigning high schools, writes Joseph DiMartino in this Education Week Commentary. Two states—New Hampshire and Rhode Island—are adopting just such an approach, in which students must demonstrate their mastery of content through hands-on, real-world situations.

These programs may be a catalyst for change across an educational landscape overwhelmingly characterized by standardized testing, writes DiMartino. Such programs will drive curriculum, motivate students, and change the relationship between students and teachers in a positive way. The focus on real-world situations would also better prepare students for the workforce.

What do you think? Can performance assessment lead to better student outcomes than accountability testing alone? Can nontraditional strategies coexist and survive in an accountability-oriented education system?


Wherever you can incorporate 'real-world' competitencies and accompanying performance assessments has to be a plus for kids to make school more relevant and enticing for many.

Performance assessment certainly sounds promising. I would like to see a lot more done with this method and with student portfolios.

But doesn't the challenge lie in assuring students, parents, administrators, and the government that all students are getting evaluated in the same manner? The more flexibility we put into the assessment system, the more people will challenge the validity of the results - precisely because they weren't standardized.

Though as a nation we seem to be focused on cohort based standardized assessment, as educators we know that this isn't the best way (or even the fairest way) to gain an undersatnding of a student's true abilities. The career and technical education community has been using end of program performance assessment for the last 40 years. the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute has almost 200 performance tests debveloped and validated by Subject matter experts from Industry. These tests not only provide a more realistic view of the student's ability. They also increase the student's chances of doing well by using multiple measures of ability. This combined with a teacher's formative assessments, a pre-test and a solid curriculum make a powerful combination to increase a student's chance of success.

There is nothing new, or even revolutionary about performance based testing. This was, in fact, the original form of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. What is still missing in the assessment discussion is the reward for competency. The real accountability is the value of the education. The ultimate goal of secondary education is still a piece of paper. That same piece of paper, with about $1.50 in today's market, will get you a cup of the house blend coffee of the day. The diplomas handed out at graduation are supposed to represent some sort of competency, or proficiency. In truth, the diploma has never represented much more than the perseverance of the individual to stay in school for 12 years. If we are going to expect more of students, we must add value to the goal. The expectations hinted at in this article , portfolios, projects, and the like, both inflate the secondary diploma to a kind of degree and deflate the bachelor's degree to the level of the high school diploma.
There is no added reward for the added rigor of reform.

When tests are meaningful and significant both students and teachers recognize their validity. Pittsburgh Public Schools has annually collected and rated over 1700 speech samples in French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish in grade 5, grade 8, level 3 high school, and seniors. An online software program enables the district to rate the speech samples (that simulate real-life linguistic experiences) using the national ACTFL scale. The assessment program provides focus for students and teachers and both groups really want to know how they have progressed from one testing period to the next.

The problem is not the tests, or the assessments. The problem is the use of tests for the popular buzzword, accountability. As teachers, we test constantly, gathering feedback from students to better know how well we are bringing about learning. It is a constant feedback loop, that reveals what is making an impact and what is not. Teaching is an art, requiring ever changing methodology to bring about the goal of learning. Testing to determine if this or that standard is met is ineffective and unrevealing. The idea of accountability assumes that learning is not happening. The high-stakes testing methodology reveals nothing about achievement or the causes of achievement or the lack of it.

Performance assessment does not assess mastery. It assesses the student's ability to perform on that test, on that day, and NOT weather or not the student has learned and mastered the material. Given that there are multiple intelligences and multiple modes of learning, and that some students learn best under certain modes of instruction, it stands to reason that students would "perform" better given the opportunity to present their knowledge in other modes, in perhaps more creative ways (e.g. video or computer presentation, report, original story, illustration/drawings/cartoons, etc). If everyone was adept at test taking there wouldn't be such a gap between school performance on such tests, however, since not all students are so inclined, outcomes of performance assessments do not reflect student's true knowledge. Teaching to these tests is a disservice to our students because they miss out on content and opportunities that arise from less test-focused instruction. If NCLB is to be most succsessful all children must be taught in the mode of instruction under which they learn best, and assess them in the mode of assessment under which they will be most successful. As it is now, many students are set up for failure because they are simply not good test-takers. Anxiety can wreak havoc on one's ability to perform. While there may be a rise in test scores, it does not necessarily indicate student's knowledge. Children are not numbers and numbers do not reflect the abilities of our children. Rethinking NCLB, a good concept at the core but inconsistent in application across the states, unfortunately, IS leaving many children behaind. Special needs students are exposed to the curriculum, even if it is beyond their ability, and expected to perform on these assessments without any accommodations or modifications, knowing full well their success will be limited when compared to peers. How is that not leaving any child behind? Assessments for all students need to be at their ability level, not based on a concept of what their ability should be due to their grade level. Yes, there are and should be grade level standards, but student's are going to perform at their ability level whether or not it is at grade level. This does not mean that we shouldn't strive for more or push the student's to acheieve, but let's do it at their ability level to ensure their success. In the real world, while there are standards of evaluation in job performance, the results of such evaluations are not posted and compared to others like sports statistics. We are not made to feel we are "less than" another employee because the outcome of the evaluation is kept confidential. Comparing student's individual as well as collective outcomes goes against confidentiality, however many districts participate in this type of comparison. The notion that students will be "motivated" to perform better if they are made aware of how other student's are performing, is a morale buster, not just for student's but for teachers too. For those whose performance does not improve, or improves very little, they are left to feel unuccessful. And for teachers, if their students performance does not improve, they are made to feel as if they did not teach well, they did not do their job. One can teach but one cannot force learning. For the students and teachers whose performance does improve, certainly they feel good, but at what cost? Is it worth the stress and pressure that students and teachers endure to obtain an outcome that doesn't truly measure student knowledge? It seems performance assessments are more to assess teachers ability to teach. However, teachers can teach to the test content, and teach well, but not all students will learn, retain, and be able to perform successfully. So what are we actually measuring and seeing in the statistics? Not a reflection of student knowledge, nor a reflection of teaching skill. Scores are merely a reflection of a window in time where students performed at a certain level on a certain day. For ELL students, no matter how bright they may be, and depending on their English language proficiency level, their success on such measures may be limited. They are at a disadvantage if their English proficiency level is not at the level of their native English speaking peers. So, comparing their scores to native-English speakers scores is decidedly unfair. In districts where the population is higher in ELL's it may be performance on these assessments may not be as high compared to other districts, not because ELL's aren't bright, but because thay are being assessed in a language they have not mastered. Children are to be assessed in their native language for special education purposes, why not for general education? Or, if we expect ELL's to be assessed in English, then testing should be at an English language level commensurate with the ELL's English language proficiency. ELL teachers can support the concept that students who are learning English require about 7 years to reach a BICS level. As such, when these students participate in performance assessments in English any time prior to 7 years of exposure, they are at a disadvantage. So, performance assessments do not measure mastery, only a student's performance on that day at that time; they do not measure knowledge, only a student's ability to choose or guess a correct answer on a particular day at a particular time; and they do not measure a teachers ability to teach. Performance assessments would be more useful if they were given at a student's actual level of ability and in a mode of assessment that would best reflect a student knowledge.

The present high stakes testing environment is not the way to assess learning especially for students labeled special needs. Many other students 'freeze' up in a testing environment because of performance anxiety. It is high stakes. You pass or you do not receive a high school diploma. No high school diploma? A certificate of completion in it's place?

Redesigning assessment is needed. High stakes testing splits communities and turns the test results into bragging rights for parents and the standard of whether the educators are doing their job. Poor results always results is the accusation of improper funding of the schools and/or the number of students in a class. If class size is truly important how will our students ever learn in a college setting where classes have 40, 50 or 100 students.

The approach NH & RI are taking makes much more sense. As a parent I would be much more satisfied knowing my children can put into motion that which they have learned. There could be no better indicator of learning than the hands-on application of knowledge. If you can do it you have learned it.

I think that this discussion has set up a false dichotomy. Mastery (as opposed to standards by grade level) would certainly provide fertile ground for accountability if we chose to go that way. I frankly don't know that American teachers are any better prepared to go that direction. Nebraska has instituted their accountability system based on teacher and classroom assessments. From a scan of their Ed Department's website, validity is a huge issue, and I don't gather than teachers are happy dealing with it.

What I believe is far to often being advocated when "high stakes testing" is being challenged is a return to a more anything-goes atmosphere with minimal market forces (those with means drift to the high-priced housing markets of suburbs with successful school systems, or leave the system) affecting quality for some. I have to wince everytime that someone blames the "stakes" for all kinds of bad things (traumatized kids, teacher cheating, etc), because the "stakes" are typically so minimal and slow to "kick in." It takes several years to establish a "needs improvement" status, with the first consequence being some mildly enhanced options for parents (a different school, or tutoring--if these are accessible). After several more years of needing improvement the requirement to make an improvement plan is added to the "stakes." Sounds painful. Makes one wonder how they were operating prior. We are now something like 5-7 years down the road and may have increased the stringency of the plan somewhat (altering the curriculum). By the time restructuring is among the possible outcomes the original group of kids who were poorly served have moved on. And those who have followed this issue find that most schools implement only minor restructuring. While the law suggests such things as a longer school day or year, or other major reform, most districts are settling for for minor pieces such as teacher and principal shuffling (the "indignity" of having to reapply for one's position).

Frankly, you can measure progress any way you want, but there is no way getting around the fact that in our country some kids are getting well educated and others aren't. Until we get serious about recognizing this as a problem to be solved the mode of measurement will matter little. The one advantage of our current testing system is it plainly spells out the disparities.

Standardized testing serves ONE main purpose: to ensure that ALL states provide at least a minimum, uniform level of education to ALL kids. As long as states have had control of their schools, inequality has been the rule - which must be changed! Educators continue to talk about testing removing the "enrichment opportunities" now offered. Many of these simply dilute the basic learning that should be happening - as evidenced by the numbers of students who can't read, write, or calculate (which the testing is pointing out.)
Year-round schools and/or longer school days must be considered in this century! Students have a lot more to learn today than they did 75 years ago, and rate-of-change of that knowledge is changing much faster today. The curriculum taught by teachers 10 years ago, and the methods of teaching simply are not appropriate as the "default" standards. Unfortunately, too many senior teachers have fallen into a groove and won't change with the times. For many of these, the world is still flat, computers serve no purpose, and the pencil is still the predominant communication tool (some still believe in the slide-rule.) Recertification for teachers must be implemented, keeping current with the times and needs of today's society.
Too many people think of technology in terms of "how it may help education". While many tech tools can surely contribute, the most important aspect of technology in education is teaching the students to use it! It IS required for their future employment and advanced education.
As to language, face it folks: this country speaks English. Learn it, live with it, or suffer. I speak from experience, having faced the same situation as a child growing up in France. Like everything else in education, the student and their families must make a committment to learn; we can provide the environment, the teachers, and the materials, but the books can't be stuffed into someone's ear against their will.

Technology is an successfully instructional tool for SOME students; it does not work for OTHER students. The problem with legislators is they try to "standardize" education, which is not possible by definition. Each student is an individual, you might group them by some characteristics but they will never perform equal under the same stimulus.

How many times have we taught content to our students and have come to the realization that they are unable to know when to apply their developed skills in the real-world? I believe any time that we can teach the students how to use the skills we are teaching in the real-world, how much more powerful our teaching will be. I would like to see more performance-based assessments being used in the classroom, in addition to project-based learning.

The public schools are having sanctions placed upon them, and ultimately restructuring if high stakes standards are not met. This is proving to be the demise of many public schools, with a corporate model to replace the public system. The public system has failed, not so much because of its lack of competent teachers and good students, and caring parents, but because the funding has failed the public system and divided schools creating competition. We all talk about assessment, as if that IS EDUCATION. It is the teaching that is important, not the assessment. We need to get our priorities straight. Trying to run a school like a business with competition as the major component, is selling our students short on what education can mean to them in their lifetime. Especially young children, do not need vast amounts of time using technology. They need to learn to communicate with each other, and not constantly be trying to outdo one another because of competitive market economic attitudes that are slipping into education as if they are the answer to all school difficulties. Students are dropping out because they feel the pressure of a society out of control and blaming them for not doing better. We have a responsibility to show students the way, not destroy them in the process. We have the responsibility to allow them to become thinkers, for heaven knows they are going to have to think their way out of a very big mess we are creating for them. We must stop blaming students.

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Recent Comments

  • Deanna Enos/Author Nobody Left Behind - One Child's Story About Testing: The public schools are having sanctions placed upon them, and read more
  • Nina Swanson: How many times have we taught content to our students read more
  • Patricio A. Rojas, Ph.D. Rsearch and Data Director: Technology is an successfully instructional tool for SOME students; it read more
  • Mark, Parent, Education Administration: Standardized testing serves ONE main purpose: to ensure that ALL read more
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