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Commercial Test Publishers Entering Market for Performance Assessments

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Arizona's contract with a commercial test publisher to develop its new performance-based assessment heralds a growing shift toward alternative forms of testing, state and testing officials assert.

The deal with the Riverside Publishing Company, which publishes the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, is one of the first forays by a major firm into the arena of performance assessments, which many experts in the field consider a promising alternative to traditional standardized tests.

Unlike conventional multiple-choice tests, performance assessments measure students' abilities on a range of tasks, such as writing essays and conducting science experiments.

Earlier this year, the ctb/Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company outbid four other firms to develop Maryland's new test, and Kentucky is expected to seek bids from publishers shortly. Other states that have moved toward performance assessment, such as Connecticut and California, have developed the tests on their own.

The new involvement by the major publishers demonstrates that they consider performance assessments the wave of future, suggested Gerald W. Bracey, director of research for the Cherry Creek, Colo., school district. By contrast, he noted, few large firms were interested in developing states' minimum-competency tests during the 1970's.

"Some people are talking about performance assessments replacing norm-referenced tests," Mr. Bracey said. "Companies are market-driven.''

State officials say they chose to deal with the publishers because they lacked the resources to develop the tests on their own. They add that they are confident the assessments will match their objectives.

Some critics question, however, whether the private companies' involvement will advance the cause of performance assessment.

Grant Wiggins, director of research for Consultants on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure, a Rochester, N.Y.-based group, said it ''remains to be seen" whether commercial publishers accustomed to developing traditional tests can produce high-quality performance assessments.

"It's too early to tell," Mr. Wiggins said. "I am not disposed to think of them as inherently evil. But I'm not naive. I'm going to watch with a cynical eye."

But Ruth Mitchell, associate director of the Council for Basic Education, said the Arizona deal represents a good compromise between using a state's own resources and relying on commercial publishers. Although the firm will develop the main state assessment, she noted, teachers will be extensively involved in the scoring of the assessments, and the state has explicitly urged schools to revamp their curricula to match the higher-order skills measured by the test.

"This seems to be the answer to a question for small states who are presented by their legislature with a short deadline," Ms. Mitchell said.

Arizona's student-assessment plan, approved by the legislature4this spring, is part of a major effort by state officials there to improve the way they monitor and report on student performance, according to Lois Easton, director of curriculum planning for the Arizona Department of Education.

"We're moving from the Neanderthal Age to the jet age," she said. ''For 10 years, we were relying on norm-referenced tests. We would report scores in the newspaper, which would print a series of numbers. That was our only public form of reporting."

Under the new system, the state will develop comprehensive profiles for each school and school district, and for the state as a whole. These profiles will include data from surveys of teachers, parents, and administrators, reports from districts on the number of students attaining the state's "essential skills," and test scores.

The legislation also called for the development of a performance-based assessment program, to be administered in grades 3, 8, and 12, that would measure student performance in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Such tests may, for example, ask students to design an amusement park, using charts, graphs, and other mathematical operations.

Ms. Easton said the program is aimed at steering instruction toward higher-order skills in these subjects.

"We want districts to do curriculum alignment," she said. "We hope they will use the assessments for staff development."

"Teachers are not used to integrated learning in reading, writing as a process, and math as sustained problem-solving," she added.

Under the legislation, Arizona's assessment and reporting system is scheduled to go into effect fully in the fall of 1991.

To meet such a tight deadline, Ms. Easton said, the state department of education agreed to contract with a private firm to develop the assessment.

"If we had the leisure to get the products on the table to the legislature, we would have probably not gone to a publisher," she said. "But we were under a tight mandate to get something done and done quickly."

The Arizona official added that the testing firm was more likely than the department, which lacked a testing expert, to develop a test that would be free of cultural bias and other problems that might leave the state vulnerable to lawsuits.

"We had to rely on a company that was willing to put its copyright on it so that we wouldn't get into trouble," she said.

Ms. Easton noted, in addition, that state officials were confident that Riverside would produce the kind of high-quality assessment system they wanted. The firm's proposal closely matched the state's specifications even though the state did not show company officials their prototype, she pointed out.

Moreover, said D. Monty Neill, associate director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, the Arizona legislation also8provides mechanisms to improve district-level assessments.

As part of the assessment system, he noted, company and state officials trained classroom teachers as scorers, which will help familiarize them with the assessment's goals.

In addition, he said, the legislation calls for local districts to submit assessment plans to the state that show how their testing systems meet state objectives. The state is expected to encourage districts to use innovative types of assessment, such as student portfolios, he observed.

"If you simply buy something off the shelf and bring it in, that's good but not sufficient," Mr. Neill said.

Despite these features, argued Mr. Wiggins, the state's arrangement with Riverside may not result in improved assessment.

As part of the deal, he noted, the company will hold the copyright on the assessment, meaning that reformers in other states will be unable to benefit from Arizona's experience.

"It is absolutely critical," Mr. Wiggins said, "that for this movement to have life to it, a handful of people with proprietary interests can't keep it to themselves."

A better model, he suggested, is in Maryland, where the state holds the copyright and teachers will play a substantial role in developing, as well as scoring, the assessment.

Robert E. Gabrys, chief of program assessment, evaluation, and instructional support for the Maryland Department of Education, said that state evaluated firms' bids, in part, on the extent to which they involved teachers in the development of the assessment. Under Maryland's agreement with ctb/Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, he said, nine teachers from each of the state's 24 school districts will help draw up tasks that will be included on the test; another 300 teachers and former teachers will score it.

"Most states probably do not have this number of people" involved in their assessments, Mr. Gabrys said.

In other states, Mr. Wiggins said, publishers are likely to continue moving to position themselves in the performance-assessment market.

"I'm impressed with the fact that companies realize that it's in the wind, and that they have mobilized," he said.

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