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500 Teachers in 17 States, 6 Districts To Pilot National Exam

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In a significant step toward the development of a national examination system, some 500 4th-grade teachers in 17 states and 6 school districts this week will begin piloting the prototype for such a system.

"We are descending from the realms of rhetoric into practical reality,'' said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and the co-director of the effort, known as the New Standards Project.

Over the next three weeks, the teachers will administer a total of six tasks in language arts and eight in mathematics, which are expected to take two to four class periods to complete. Teachers and pupils will also be asked to fill out questionnaires on their classroom practices and backgrounds.

Although the results will provide data on student performance in the two subjects, the purpose of the pilot is to test the feasibility of a large-scale assessment of complex performance tasks, according to Daniel P. Resnick, the director of research for the project.

"We're trying to see what good tasks look like,'' Mr. Resnick said. "We are not trying to assess kids.''

Trying Out Tasks

Although a number of organizations have proposed the creation of national standards for student performance and a related system of assessments, the New Standards Project--which was funded by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts--is the closest toward realization.

The development of the exam began last summer in Snowmass, Colo., when groups of teachers and curriculum specialists from the participating states and districts developed tasks that could form the building blocks of the new system. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991.)

Over the past year, teachers tried out the tasks, which were then refined and distilled into the 14 that will be administered beginning this week.

"The only way'' to determine the quality of the assessment tasks, said Mr. Tucker, "is to give them to teachers and have them give them to kids.''

Because it is a pilot, Mr. Resnick said, the tasks are not intended to represent curriculum's entire scope.

"We recognize that these have not at all tapped the full range of the content concerns represented in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards, nor for that matter a rich literacy framework,'' he said.

Different Building Block

To conduct the pilot, each participating jurisdiction selected 10 teachers from each subject area. Several jurisdictions, with their own funds, also enlisted additional teachers.

The assessment tasks include pre-assessment activities, to provide context for the questions and to gather prior knowledge; they all also require individual and group work, as well as writing.

To provide a "real-world context'' for the assessment, the math items require the manipulation of materials, such as tiles, and the language-arts assessment uses whole texts. One of the literacy tasks involves responses to a book, Amazing Grace, copies of which the project purchased for use in the pilot.

"This is a very different kind of building block than an item in a standardized test, in which there is a clearly framed problem and one right answer,'' Mr. Tucker said.

One-tenth of the pupils will perform two tasks, to determine the extent to which their performance can be generalized to provide information about their overall knowledge and skills in the subject.

Professional Development

Over the next year, project officials plan to expand the examination to include 10 times as many tasks. Eventually, the examination is also expected to include long-term projects and portfolios as well.

They also plan, depending on resources, to increase from 5 to 10 times the number of teachers involved, and to add exams for 8th and 10th graders and in other subjects.

Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the L.R.D.C. and the co-director of the New Standards Project, said that the project is committed to training teachers who take part in the examination system. All of the teachers involved in the pilot participated in the generation of tasks, and will help score them at a workshop in Montana late next month, she noted.

These teachers, in turn, will train the next generation of participants.

"We are not putting in place exams without preparing teachers for them,'' she said.

But Paul G. LeMahieu, the director of the division of research, evaluation, and test development for the Pittsburgh public schools, said the project needs to boost its training to prepare teachers to do much more than administer the assessments.

The teachers involved thus far, he noted, tend to be those who already provide the kind of instruction all teachers will need to provide if their students are to do well on the exams.

Once the project becomes a full-blown examination system, he said, "that means professional development on a different scale, and a different purpose.''

"That requires a very large and very different response,'' he said.

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