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Lawmakers Putting the Brakes on Alternative Assessments

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Lawmakers in a number of states have stopped or slowed plans in recent months to use alternative assessments designed to measure students' higher-order thinking skills.

New testing programs or plans to implement them have been challenged in Arizona, California, Indiana, Kansas, and Maine, among other states.

"The people who originated the programs have not gotten cold feet," said Edward D. Roeber, who tracks assessment for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

But the elections last year swept into office new policymakers who believe they have a mandate for change, said Mr. Roeber, and some are skeptical about what is really necessary to raise academic standards. "They have a lot of questions," he said.

A study by the council and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, a federally financed agency, shows that performance assessments--which typically ask students to perform certain tasks and answer open-ended questions--have become increasingly popular, at least through the 1993-94 school year. Twenty-five states reported using them that year compared with only 17 in 1991-92. The use of student portfolios as an assessment tool, meanwhile, remained steady at seven states, according to the study by Mr. Roeber and Linda Ann Bond of the regional lab.

California Proposal

In the past few weeks, California lawmakers have proposed replacing the pioneering California Learning Assessment System, scuttled last fall, with a two-tiered testing system.

At the local level, districts could use basic-skills tests for individual student scores. If the districts selected tests on a state-approved list, provided the requested data to the state, and tested all students from grades 2 to 10, the state would pay them $5 per student.

The state component would consist of a mandatory test that measures both basic skills and higher-order thinking. The design for the test is yet to be determined.

"We're talking about something that is completely different from CLAS," said Gerry Shelton, a consultant in the California education department's assessment office.

In Kansas, several members of the legislature raised questions this year about that state's proposed assessment system. In the end, though, lawmakers asked state education officials to eliminate a learner outcome that required students to achieve physical and emotional well-being.

"The legislature simply tried to keep the pressure on to have very focused assessments and not ones that are unrelated to academic achievement," said Dave Kerr, who until recently was the chairman of the Kansas Senate education committee.

Cost Benefit

Cost-conscious politicians are even more inclined to question the need for what are considered to be more authentic yardsticks of achievement, experts say.

"It's like an election poll," said Robert L. Linn, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a co-director of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. "If you go out and sample 20,000 people instead of 1,000 people, you get a more precise number, but is the increase in precision worth it?"

It takes far longer to produce an assessment that achieves meaningful results than it does standardized tests--time that many politicians are unwilling to grant.

Kentucky legislators are an exception. Even though a recent study cited flaws in its novel assessment system, lawmakers decided to work out the wrinkles rather than abandon it. (See Education Week, 7/12/95.)

"It really did show the minds of people in Kentucky that this is going to take a long time," said Richard K. Hill, the president of Advanced Systems in Measurement and Evaluation Inc., which helped create the assessment.

Experts suggest that the opponents of performance assessments may be after the wrong target.

"A lot of the assessment reform is tied up with the kinds of outcomes that states and districts are articulating," said Nidhi Khattri, a research analyst at Pelavin Research Institute in Washington. "It's not really the format that people are worried about; it's the content that people are worried about."

Mr. Hill cites, for example, an outcome that calls for all children to be loyal citizens, a trait that most Americans would support. But when that outcome is defined for assessment, it poses a problem.

"You don't want a country in which every citizen sings hosannas to their government on a 24-hour basis," Mr. Hill said.

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