Researchers Seek To Measure ‘Opportunity’ Standards

By Robert Rothman — April 28, 1993 4 min read
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ATLANTA--In a development that could influence a growing policy debate, researchers at all levels of education are designing ways to measure the “opportunity to learn’’ curricular content available to students, according to several of the researchers.

Speaking here at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association this month, the head of an international mathematics and science study outlined plans to measure curriculum and instructional practices in the participating countries. In addition, a U.S. official described steps to examine what is taught in classrooms in this country, while local officials discussed attempts to determine if students have been taught material that appears on tests.

The efforts are essential to insure that all students have access to high-quality instruction, said Floraline I. Stevens, a research associate at the National Science Foundation.

Tests alone, she said, cannot determine whether students’ performance actually reflects what they know or what their schools have offered.

Citing similar concerns, members of Congress have insisted that an attempt to set national standards for student performance be balanced with standards for schools as well. (See Education Week, April 7, 1993.)

“Without looking at opportunity to learn,’' Ms. Stevens said, “you’re really not looking at what students are able to do.’'

But Lois Peak, a researcher at the National Center for Education Statistics, cautioned that the efforts thus far have not yet yielded a “neat, nifty’’ indicator of opportunity to learn. And even if researchers succeed in coming up with one, she suggested, it will not improve students’ opportunities unless teachers use it to improve instruction.

“Unless teachers know how to interpret it and apply it back to their teaching,’' Ms. Peak said, “all the indicators in the world will not change education.’'

International Studies

Although the opportunity-to-learn issue has emerged only recently in policy debates in this country, it has long been a concern in international studies of student achievement, noted Leigh G. Burstein, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Countries participating in such studies, he said, have sought to determine the extent to which differences in performance reflect differences in curricula, rather than in achievement.

“Failure to try to capture opportunity to learn as comprehensively as possible,’' Mr. Burstein said, “is prima facie evidence that an achievement study is flawed.’'

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which is scheduled to be administered in 1995, will include a number of efforts to get at that question, according to William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University and the U.S. national coordinator of the study.

Beginning this spring, he said, researchers will analyze curriculum guides and textbooks from the participating countries to determine the “intended curriculum,’' or what students are expected to know.

In addition, the study will also survey teachers and principals to learn about teachers’ backgrounds, their beliefs about subject matter, and their instructional practices.

“Our hope is to relate opportunities and what is going on in classrooms to the ‘attained curriculum'--in other words, achievement,’' Mr. Schmidt said.

U.S. Studies

Within the United States, the N.C.E.S. has also taken steps to measure students’ learning opportunities, said Sharon A. Bobbitt, a statistician in the center’s division of elementary and secondary education statistics.

Both the National Education Longitudinal Survey of 1988 and the National Assessment of Educational Progress survey teachers and principals to determine the emphasis and amount of time they devote to particular topics, she noted.

In addition, the center is also planning a new study of school quality that will also attempt to measure opportunity to learn. The study, scheduled to be piloted next year, is expected to include both qualitative and quantitative methods to get inside the “black box’’ and find out what happens inside classrooms.

States and districts are using testing programs to determine students’ opportunity to learn, the researchers said.

The California Learning Assessment System, a revamped statewide testing program that will be administered this spring, will ask students if they have been taught in ways that enable them to answer the open-ended math questions on the assessment, according to Mr. Burstein.

The Los Angeles school system, meanwhile, has developed a new testing program that offers insight into instructional practices, said Trudy D. Wasney, a research adviser in the district’s program-evaluation and assessment branch.

The program, part of a five-year, $9 million project to boost student achievement in 10 historically low-achieving schools, tests students every eight weeks on exams that are aligned with instructional objectives.

“The tests monitor, in effect, the degree to which students had been exposed to grade-level objectives, and how well they had been taught,’' Ms. Wasney explained.

But despite such efforts, measures of opportunity to learn are relatively rare, Ms. Stevens said.

A survey conducted by Ms. Stevens of research directors of 91 large school districts found that the concept was “virtually unknown.’'

In addition, developing valid measures poses a number of problems, Ms. Peak said. Citing a study of teachers of Chapter 1 students conducted by researchers from the Johns Hopkins University, Ms. Peak noted that teachers may say they have taught something even if they have not.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1993 edition of Education Week as Researchers Seek To Measure ‘Opportunity’ Standards


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