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Group Outlines Principles for Equity in New Assessments

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WASHINGTON--A group of leading educators and policymakers last week outlined a set of principles aimed at insuring that new testing and assessment programs promote equity in education, and proposed an oversight mechanism to see that the principles are implemented.

The two-page statement, released at a conference here sponsored by the Ford Foundation, lists nine guidelines that districts, states, and the nation should use in creating policies for the development and use of assessment programs.

The principles resolve that: new assessments should be field-tested with a diverse population in order to demonstrate that they are fair and valid; standards and tests should reflect the skills and knowledge needed for the purposes for which they are used; new assessments should offer a variety of options in the ways students are asked to demonstrate their knowledge and skills; and policies should list the existing programs that will be replaced by new standards and assessments.

Most of the proposals are not new, but tests are frequently used in ways for which they are not intended, according to Michael T. Nettles, a professor of education and public policy at the University of Michigan.

As a result, he said, the oversight mechanism should insure that the principles are adhered to.

"We stop short of calling it a 'police force,''' Mr. Nettles said. "But there should be an expert panel in a position to review what goes on.''

Alison Bernstein, the director of education and culture for the Ford Foundation, said the review panel might function like the Underwriters Laboratory or Consumers Union, which review commercial products. But she emphasized that the foundation is only at the "beginning stages'' of discussing the formation of such a panel.

If it is implemented, she added, "it will put meat on the guidelines, which will have a positive effect on the ways testing is used in the next decade.''

Speeches and Demonstrations

The two-day conference, which was held here late last week, was aimed at focusing educators' and policymakers' attention on an issue that has loomed large in recent policy discussions, according to Ms. Bernstein.

As states and national groups have considered shifting to new forms of assessment and developing a national assessment system, she said, the foundation has sought to insure that "testing is not just a more efficient sorting and screening process, but provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate abilities unmeasured and untapped by previous tests and to participate more fully in the educational system.''

In addition to papers by researchers and speeches by public officials--including U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin and Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado--the conference was also expected to feature demonstrations of new forms of assessment now being tried out in sites around the country. These demonstrations were expected to include student exhibitions, portfolios, and performance-based assessments.

"We are looking at innovative approaches that show some promise to contribute to equity,'' said Mr. Nettles. "We will see if they offer improvements.''

Consensus of Stakeholders

The statement of principles is also expected to contribute to the debate over equity in assessment, Ms. Bernstein said, by presenting a consensus of views from a variety of "stakeholders'' on policies to guarantee that tests are developed and used fairly.

In addition to test developers, she said, the signers include researchers, policymakers, and school administrators.

As of late last week, more than two dozen educators and public officials had signed the statement, including Gregory R. Anrig, the president of the Educational Testing Service; Linda Darling-Hammond, the co-director of the National Center on Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University; and Donald M. Stewart, the president of the College Board.

Walter Haney, a senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy at Boston College, said the true test of the principles will be how they are applied.

He noted that the proposed oversight mechanism--the plans for which he and George F. Madaus, the director of the center, are developing--should help make sure that they are applied effectively.

"If there is one thing we have learned from the past,'' he said, "without some systematic scrutiny and follow-up, people often sign on to guidelines in the abstract, and in practice, we see they are not lived up to.''

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