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By All Measures: 'Better Assessments' the Key

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Like most educational policy changes that take place far from the classroom, a national system of standards and assessments will have little impact on students. Almost all schools already operate under state or local standards and assessments, and it is hard to see how moving this to the national level will matter.

There is, however, one major benefit that the current discussion about standards and assessments could produce. What will make a difference is not national assessments but better assessments.

At present, the use of standardized tests drives curriculum and instruction toward narrow teaching of splinter skills. Recently, states have been experimenting with far better assessment systems that use matrix sampling (patterned on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) to test such a broad range of skills that the only way to "teach to the test,'' is to teach a broad and appropriate curriculum. Some have begun to assess actual student performance, such as carrying out science experiments.

There are many technical difficulties involved in creating and administering such tests, but I am confident that these can be solved as states gain experience with them. Besides, many of these technical difficulties revolve around the use of scores to assess individual students. There are many fewer difficulties in using them to assess schools, which is the appropriate role of any state or national accountability system.

At present, federal policies are working against broad assessment by requiring Chapter 1 schools (75 percent of all elementary schools) to use tests from which national percentiles can be derived. In practice, this requires the use of standardized tests.

The assessment debate, we may hope, will ultimately result in federal support for state efforts to produce or adapt the promising new assessments. It is the quality of these assessments, not whether they are national or state assessments, that will make a difference.

Robert E. Slavin is professor of elementary education and director of the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at The Johns Hopkins University.

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