By Adam Gamoran
As our nation has struggled to implement an education accountability system that helps improve learning and reduce achievement gaps, one point has become clear: We need better assessments. Even though state assessments are now much better aligned with state content standards than they were before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, many are still widely criticized as narrow and focused on low-level skills. In addition, the exclusive focus on reading and math is crowding out instructional time for other essential subjects, including science. Other countries offer examples that can help us design assessments that are richer and deeper and require students not just to memorize concepts, but to solve problems and demonstrate their readiness for college and careers - the goals highlighted in current federal reform pronouncements such as the Obama administration’s Blueprint for Reform.
In most countries outside the U.S., students undertake high-stakes assessments around the time they are leaving high school. In contrast to the U.S., where college entrance examinations such as the ACT and SAT are explicitly disconnected from the curricula of any particular high school, in most other countries these “school-leaving examinations” are deliberately tied to the curriculum so that students can demonstrate what they have learned. Many countries require essays and have students assemble portfolios of materials, and few rely solely on the sort of multiple-choice examinations that are at the core of high-stakes assessments in the U.S.
In Scotland, for example, a nation whose education system I had the chance to study during a particular period of declining inequality at one of its levels, students take examinations at approximately ages 16 and 18 that strongly influence the course of their subsequent studies. These examinations are closely tied to the high school curriculum. All students have the opportunity to study the curricular material that is tested, and some of the examinations incorporate students’ accomplishments over the course of the school year in addition to their performance on a sit-down examination at the end of the year as part of students’ assessment results. Nearly all students are tested in reading and mathematics, but students also study and respond to assessments in a wide range of other subjects. The latest reform effort in Scotland, called A Curriculum for Excellence, emphasizes the role of assessment in promoting student learning. Implementation guidelines for this policy stress the importance of assessing students in varied ways and across multiple domains, including breadth as well as depth of knowledge and testing students’ abilities to apply knowledge to new situations.
Education reformers in the U.S. are beginning to recognize the value of richer and deeper assessments. Some 43 states have signed on to the Common Core Standards Initiative, which has developed a standards framework that can drive meaningful improvements in curricula and standards across the U.S. Moreover, two consortia of states - the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) - have received federal funds to develop new assessment systems aligned to the Common Core standards. The federal investment in these efforts is considerable: $170 million to PARCC and $160 million to SBAC. If these assessments fulfill their promise, they will go a long way towards enabling us to monitor student learning in ways that really matter for their abilities to be successful in and outside of school.
We can use tests for the dual purposes of both accountability and supporting learning. In both cases, however, we need assessments that demonstrate student learning in a more meaningful way that those that are most prevalent at present. In addition, the new assessments should be tied to professional development designed to give teachers new tools to help their students reach standards.
Adam Gamoran is the MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Educational Policy Studies and the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His co-edited works include Methodological Advances in Cross-National Surveys of Educational Achievement (National Academies Press, 2002) and Stratification in Higher Education: A Comparative Study (Stanford University Press, 2007).
The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.