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Common Understandings for Complex Reforms

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A crucial link is missing between the goals of current reform initiatives and the strategies used to implement them. This missing link is significant enough to impede achievement of the goals, for without it reform initiatives will remain simply that: initiatives from without, rather than understandings shared by those integral to the delivery of education.

The missing link is the assimilation by teachers and others close to the classroom's work of the conceptual shifts that undergird the reform initiatives: the dynamic sets of whys and hows that determine the process of change.

From my work with teachers, administrators, and curriculum supervisors who are defining and shaping performance-based-assessment criteria, I can say that it is here--in trying to implement nontraditional assessment in the classroom--that these conceptual complexities become most clear.

The work of setting such criteria requires us to be intensely reflective about what students do in the classroom when they are practicing such desired "outcomes'' as reasoning, problem solving, spatial visualization, number sense, and cooperation. Yet my experience and the experience of other colleagues doing similar work has been thought-provoking, if not troubling. We are finding that, despite the need to work at this more intensive and reflective level, there is often a marked reluctance to do so.

When I shared with a colleague some of my concerns about this reluctance, she (a teacher herself) responded, "But this is not what educators like to do!'' The work of grasping the ideas and concepts behind the intended outcomes is difficult. It is particularly difficult when organizational practices in schools work against teaching toward and evaluating students' conceptual understandings. Nevertheless, I believe the kind and depth of assessment reform we have been seeking to initiate during the past decade will not occur unless we stop seeing this process in simplistic, check-list terms.

The kind of reform we are undertaking generally in this country requires a far different level of conceptual involvement on the part of everyone--students, teachers, administrators, education-department personnel, curriculum directors, and parents--than has been necessary with any previous reform effort. There are many reasons for this; I would emphasize the following:

  • The reform itself is so large. We are not addressing a single subject area, like science. We are addressing the very core of the teaching, learning, and evaluation process at once. The change process is so interrelated, in fact, that it is hard to know where to begin. It involves all of us, and all aspects of teaching and learning.
  • Our knowledge of how learning occurs has grown exponentially over the last 10 to 20 years. We now acknowledge the central role of the learner, not just the teacher, in the process of learning. As a result, some are beginning to make a fundamental shift in thinking about the role of the classroom teacher. Teaching is no longer seen primarily as telling, and learning is no longer seen simply as retelling. This change in what we want to see occurring in the classroom requires a different type of engagement with the learner and the learning process than has heretofore been the case.
  • The skills and abilities required of high school graduates have changed dramatically. It appears clear that now the goal is not just to prepare students by giving them content knowledge, but by enhancing their facility to apply "process skills'' (such as reasoning and problem solving) in conjunction with content knowledge.
  • There is too much subject matter to teach. We are finding that we serve our students better if we develop effective ways for creating interdisciplinary courses and learning situations, rather than continuing to teach in isolated units segmented both by time and subject matter. These interdisciplinary learning situations better reflect "real life,'' and thus provide learning skills which will enable students to continue to learn long after they finish school. The acceptance of these realities has freed us to examine and change both our traditional curriculum and methods of evaluation.
  • Traditional, standardized measures will not capture the kinds of abilities we want our students to master. We are coming to understand the evaluation of learning not primarily in terms of an end product, but more in terms of the entire process in which students have opportunities to practice and reflect on the skills and abilities we say we value. It is a process that requires a good deal of feedback along the way, not just a grade assigned to a test or a paper at the end of a chapter.
  • The authority for implementing change has shifted. In significant ways this change process is not a top-down model, for more authority and initiative for change have shifted to the local school and to the classroom teacher, and in some ways, to the students themselves.

The emerging reform scenario places responsibility on everyone in education to change in some fundamental way, whether it is by giving up some authority that hinders growth, changing teaching styles, reordering class schedules to hold collaborative-planning time as sacred, finding creative ways to encourage and support staff development, or discovering ways to promote, not suppress, innovation. This fundamental change in roles is most acutely felt in the area of assessment, for here we are asking teachers and students to assume a level of authority and knowledge with evaluation that is unprecedented. Yet we are asking them to assume such roles often with little assistance in conceptualizing the process of nontraditional assessment strategies, and with little practice in designing these strategies. As a result, assessment linked to instruction often remains a vague and distant idea, and with good reason.

There is a significant difference in the conceptual skills required to grade a multiple-choice test and those needed to identify the behaviors and abilities students use when they engage in a series of authentic tasks--data collection, sorting and finding appropriate categories for the information, analyzing what the information means to them. The latter involves focused and reflective classroom observation, the give-and-take of dialogue with colleagues, the testing out of conceptual frameworks, and the designing of lessons that will evoke the behaviors identified as the critical ones. Determining appropriate assessment criteria that will inform instruction by providing a developing picture of student abilities across grade levels is the fundamental link to moving our performance-based-assessment agenda to a more concrete level. It is the engine that will propel assessment forward in classrooms.

If such an agenda is to reach its potential, however, we must encourage, model, support, and involve ourselves with those who have to do the hard conceptual work on a daily basis: the classroom teachers. Ultimately, they are the ones who will be making the links between curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Part of the success of any effort to support teachers in their work in assessment will be based on willingness to update content backgrounds through support and professional development, to relinquish standardization as a goal, to provide time for collaborative, focused discussion and reflection, and to model active reflection and observation as essential professional tools. We must all learn to be flexible about living with ambiguity and the fallout from the change process as we get a sense of what assessment in the classroom looks like. And we must realize that the process of making criteria public entails making our methods for judging performance public as well, all of which will be unsettling as we move through the learning curve.

The assessment agenda, like many of the other agendas in this large-scale reform effort, cannot be authentically achieved if we look for single-dimension methods of implementation. The difference between the single-dimension and the more complex solutions is the difference between having a check-list of disparate student skills as one's assessment criteria, and building and developing a picture of student skills in relation to specified outcomes. The former does not deliver the intent of the assessment reform; the latter does.

All of us involved in reform initiatives are having to adjust our sense of time as we realize just how large the order of magnitude is in this change process. The creative relationship between thought and action in the assessment piece of the reform, and it may well be true of others, is a critical dynamic to producing the depth of change required. Somehow we need to become better at modeling this relationship within the context of assessment. An initial first step is in challenging ourselves to accept the necessity for dialogue that often will not end in neat, easy-to-implement answers.

Jean Moon is the director of the Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology in Education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass.

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