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State Boards' Leaders Call for Assessments Bearing Consequences

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State assessments of student achievement should have consequences for the students who take them and the schools that give them, a report from state education leaders says, but test results should not be the only criterion used to make such judgments.

Moreover, the report issued last week says, states should use several tests to measure learning, mixing traditional multiple-choice tests with so-called performance assessments, which ask students to write a response or perform an activity to show what they know and are able to do.

For More Information

"The Full Measure: Report of the NASBE Study Group on Statewide Assessment Systems'' is available for $12, plus $2 shipping and handling, from NASBE Publications, 1012 Cameron St., Alexandria, VA 22314; (800) 220-5183.

: In the report by a group of state school board members from the National Association of State Boards of Education, the officials urge their colleagues toward steps many of them have been reluctant to take. Currently, 26 states rely entirely, or nearly so, on multiple-choice tests to measure student knowledge and skills in all subjects, excluding tests of writing, according to the study released at NASBE's annual conference Oct. 16-18 in Kiawah Island, S.C.

But the 19-member panel, representing as many state boards, that produced the new report wasn't out to lay blame, said Martha W. Wise, the chairwoman of the study group and a member of the Ohio state school board. The panel, she said, was aware of other recent, critical reports on state efforts on standards and assessments, such as those produced by the American Federation of Teachers and the Cambridge, Mass.-based National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest. ("AFT, Foundation Find Good and Bad in States' Standards," Aug. 6, 1997, and "State Testing Needs Improvement, Study Finds," Sept. 3, 1997.)

Ideal Characteristics

"Some of those were finger-pointing kinds of studies," she said. "We wanted to identify the ... framework for all state board members to review and consider in light of their own state decisions."

The NASBE report, produced over nine months this year, also says that assessments must be in tune with rigorous state standards, address specific goals, offer some national and international comparisons, include all students, and be thoroughly evaluated.

An effective assessment system should also help a state identify learning gaps and high achievement, the panel says. The state then has an obligation to follow up, providing help to the students who still need to meet academic goals or offering more instruction to foster continued achievement in the most accomplished.

Unfortunately, the report says--quoting the AFT study--just 13 states require or have plans to require remediation for students not meeting standards, and only 10 back the mandate with funding.

"It's sort of been catch-as-catch-can" for states putting together their assessment systems, said David Kysilko, who was the lead NASBE staff liaison to the group.

High Stakes' Downside

While the school boards group says assigning consequences, such as promotion to the next grade, is an "essential element of a state assessment system," it recommends that assessment results never be used as the sole factor in dispensing rewards or sanctions. Or, it says, state assessments should be used in "high stakes" ways other than graduation or promotion, such as for conferring diplomas bearing special endorsements.

Denying a diploma based only on test scores, when the student is otherwise qualified to graduate, the group says, "means that students who do well in school but perform poorly on the state assessment may be unfairly penalized by a one-shot evaluation of their accumulated school work."

The report also warns that high-stakes tests can have many unintended negative consequences. Too often, the report says, the curriculum in a state with high-stakes tests "narrows to little more than test content, and teachers spend an inordinate amount of class time 'prepping' students for the tests."

Such tests can also encourage cheating if sanctions are based on test results, the report says, and they can be especially harmful for high-poverty, minority students if drilling for the test replaces a full, rich curriculum.

But the NASBE group's endorsement of high-stakes testing, even with its caveats, is a potential lightning rod for controversy. "It definitely was a tough issue for us," Mr. Kysilko said.

But Ms. Wise, whose state ties test performance to graduation and has successfully fended off legal challenges, said high stakes are key. "Unless we say these are tremendously important for our students and then tie high stakes to them," she said, "students and others will tend to find excuses for not taking the tests [or] for not achieving high scores."

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