Putting our ideas of assessment to the test

This question isn’t new; remember all the hand wringing that accompanied the introduction of graphing calculators into math classes in the ’80s and ’90s? Today, the notion that calculators would make students dumber seems a little quaint, as a growing number of teachers are proving by using the devices to transform math class into an environment where interactive learning and exploration are replacing rote memorization. And that, in turn, is fostering greater curiosity and experimentation among students. (See our Special Report on how technology is transforming math classes here.)

If you think what Oregon has done is revolutionary, you might be shocked by Denmark’s notion of testing. In that country, the government has taken the bold step of giving students internet access during their final school-year exams. Students can access any web site they want, but they can’t use eMail or instant messaging.

For years, Denmark used a CD-ROM to administer these exams, Steen Lassen, senior advisor for the country’s Ministry of Education, told eSchool News in March. The exams tested whether students were able to find relevant information, think critically about what they found, and present their findings, Lassen explained. In other words, Danish students were asked to demonstrate the kind of 21st-century skills that many U.S. companies say they’re looking for when hiring employees.

This past spring, Denmark started a pilot project that gave students full internet access during testing for some subjects, instead of a limited collection of resources loaded onto a CD. In the United States, that would be considered cheating—but in Denmark, officials are testing for “competencies,” Lassen said, and not simply a regurgitation of facts.

Whether you believe something’s rotten in Denmark, or you support that country’s changes, one thing seems clear: The future of student assessment is no longer as unambiguous as a multiple-choice exam.

Assessing teachers is a challenge, too

How to redesign assessments so they are better, more appropriate instruments for guiding improvement is a question that is just as applicable to teachers as it is to students.

As our story “Newspaper’s teacher ratings stir up controversy” indicates, the Los Angeles Times caused quite a stir by publishing an online database comparing more than 6,000 teachers based on a controversial statistical method that relies on test-score data to determine their effectiveness.

The Times’ efforts mark the latest chapter in a national debate over how best to measure teacher quality. The Obama administration wants states and districts to incorporate students’ test scores into their teacher evaluation systems, but unions caution that test scores don’t paint a complete picture of a teacher’s worth.

The Times rated the city’s third- through fifth-grade teachers using an approach called the value-added model. Each student’s past test performance was used to project his or her future performance. The difference between the child’s actual and projected results is the estimated “value” that the teacher has added or subtracted during the year.

Supporters of the value-added model describe it as a fairer, more accurate way of using students’ test scores to assess teacher quality. But just as investors in a mutual fund are warned that the fund’s “past performance is no guarantee of future results,” I’m not so sure that a student’s prior test results are an accurate way to gauge how that student should score on future exams.

We’ll be taking a closer look at the value-added model’s pros and cons in a future issue, but here’s what the American Federation of Teachers had to say about the Times’ actions:

“Leading researchers, including the Educational Testing Service, RAND Corp., the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education [ED], and the Economic Policy Institute, have concluded that value-added models, which deal with predictions and assumptions, are inherently undependable and imprecise. All have concluded that value-added models should never be used in isolation … to judge a teacher’s performance.”

AFT’s warnings aside, more schools are rethinking their teacher evaluation processes with an eye toward including students’ test scores.

In late August, ED announced the winners of $3.4 billion in remaining Race to the Top funds to spur state and local school reforms, and implementing teacher evaluation systems that take into account student achievement data was among the criteria for the awards.

One of the winners was the District of Columbia Public Schools, whose chancellor, Michelle Rhee, has butted heads with the local teachers union over her controversial reform efforts. These include firing principals, closing schools, and negotiating a new contract with teachers earlier this year that gave them the chance to earn bonus pay in exchange for fewer job protections. After the contract was signed, Rhee promptly fired 241 teachers whose students were among the lowest performing in the district.

Rhee’s actions have earned applause from many school reformers, as well as criticism from teachers and community activists. Under her leadership, the D.C. schools have improved student achievement, and their graduation rate has inched up. But there are still significant gaps in achievement between high-performing and low-performing schools and between whites and blacks. Her critics also have decried her autocratic leadership style.

Dennis Pierce

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