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Michigan Board Approves Test To Assess Critical-Thinking Skills

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The Michigan State Board of Education has approved the development of a test to assess students' "higher-order" thinking skills.

But state officials in charge of designing the test are unsure yet which higher-order thinking skills should be tested. And they are uncertain whether higher-order thinking should be taught and assessed within conventional subject areas or as a separate subject.

No Consensus

Testing officials in other states that have implemented programs aimed at improving higher-order3thinking skills--which generally include reasoning, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and problem-solving--say there is no professional consensus on the subject of how to assess those skills.

Some states, such as Florida, are following the lead of New York by introducing difficult content tests that are aimed at assuring mastery of skills. Others, such as California, are revising curricula to identify higher-order thinking skills in specific fields of study in the belief that specific methods of inquiry are an integral part of the study of individual disciplines.

Still others, such as Connecticut, are working both to improve the6quality of inquiry within the disciplines and to develop a thinking-skills program that supplements the regular curriculum.

'Two Roads'

According to Joan Boykoff Baron, project director of the Connecticut Assessment of Educational Progress, Connecticut is following "two roads" to inject higher-order skills into the curriculum because officials recognize that while disciplines have their own higher-order thinking methodologies, there are also "transferable, generic thinking skills" that cut across subject areas.

All disciplines require that students "learn to define a problem,el5lweigh evidence, and question the nature of the authority presenting evidence," she said. Thus, schools can work to develop these skills outside the regular course content.

Because it is questionable "whether the skills have been taught very well up to this point within subjects," she added, now may be a good time to try the alternative approach.

She cited reports by the Educational Testing Service (ets) and the Education Commission of the States that have pointed to significant declines in students' ability to write persuasively, to evaluate information, and to use higher-order mathematics and science skills.

In Connecticut, Ms. Baron said, "state assessments in language arts and social studies indicate that students do well with facts and one-step problems, but that performance drops off measurably when students are asked to infer, integrate, evaluate, condense, apply, and synthesize" information.

Raising Expectations

Ms. Baron and others say the call for more emphasis on higher-order thinking skills is clearly linked to efforts to raise standards and expectations for all students.

According to Lad B. Dombrowski, administrative secretary to the Michigan state board, the board's request for the development of the higher-order assessment is the result of its "longstanding" concern that minimum required competencies not be confused with maximum levels of attainment.

The state is seeking a way to provide "challenges for students capable of more than basics," according to Edward Roeber, supervisor of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, the state's basic-skills testing program that began in 1970.

The thinking-skills test is scheduled to be launched at the high-school level in 1988.

4th-Grade Assessments

The goal in Connecticut is not merely to challenge students in high school but to challenge them as early as possible, Ms. Baron said.

Beginning in October, the state will require that districts offer a statewide test that measures higher-order thinking skills along with basic skills in the 4th grade. Next year, new assessments will be added in grades 6 and 8.

Previously, districts were required to administer tests of their own choosing three times between grades 1 and 8; a statewide basic-skills test was required in grade 9.

With the new state assessments come new curricula to emphasize higher-order skills, Ms. Baron said. "The skills we test must meet three tests: They must be important, teachable, and appropriate. We're not developing a top-echelon test for the best thinkers," she said.

In mathematics, for example, students should be able to determine whether there is enough information provided to solve a problem and to "weed out extraneous information," Ms. Baron said. Language-arts programs will focus more attention on helping students learn how to examine supporting evidence, question the authority of evidence, and infer an author's purpose.

In addition, persuasive writing will be emphasized along with narrative and expository writing.

California's Program

California will be teaching and testing higher-order thinking abilities solely within content areas. The skills will be embedded in the social studies, reading, writing, and mathematics portions of the state's assessment program.

According to Diane M. Levin, research analyst for the California assessment program, the state tests students in grades 3, 6, 8, and 12 and has been gradually adding higher-order content questions since 1982, when it instituted an assessment of 6th graders. Higher-order skills questions were added to the 8th-grade test last year.

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