Testing A New kind Of Test

November 01, 1989 5 min read

At times, the motto of the school reform movement has seemed to be: “If it moves, test it.’'

Driven by the demand for more accountability during the 1980’s, educators and policymakers have placed ever greater emphasis on standardized testing.

But the spread of “high stakes’’ testing--on which judgments are made about promotion, graduation, remediation, and the allocation of state funds-- has given rise to mounting concern and criticism. It has also triggered a counter-movement to find more creative ways to evaluate students’ performance.

In what is being called a major step away from undue reliance on standardized tests, educators in Connecticut have launched a national project aimed at developing new “performance-based’’ student assessments.

Beginning in the 1991-92 academic year, 30 or more Connecticut schools will give performance-based appraisal its first real workout, and several other states will be watching to see how the new approach fares.

Performance-based assessment differs from the pencil-and-paper test in significant ways. In Connecticut, for example, students--both as individuals and in groups--will undertake a variety of mathematics and science tasks designed to demonstrate their ability to frame problems, collect data, and analyze and report the results.

Also in contrast to the pencil-andpaper exams, some tasks may take days, weeks, or even as long as a semester to complete. Students might be asked, for example, to study the prices at two supermarkets and determine which one has the lowest. Grading would be based on how well the students worked as a group and on how effectively they used math to solve the problem. Other options might include work portfolios, exhibitions, and writing projects.

“One of the things we want to know about is whether kids can produce solutions and not just recognize them,’' explains Joan Baron, director of the Connecticut Assessment of Educational Progress. “For some tasks, there is no one right answer. Those things are very hard to get at in a multiplechoice, timed setting. What you’re doing is calling upon the kids to really use knowledge.’'

Other states have experimented with performance-based testing, but in a limited way. Eleven states, for example, test students’ writing ability by evaluating writing passages. In California, some open-ended questions are included in a 12th grade math test. And in New York State, 4th grade students taking a statewide science test this year conducted a short experiment and reported the results. Vermont is developing a program that would include student portfolios in addition to standardized tests.

But Connecticut will be the first state to base its assessments in given subject areas--initially in mathematics and science--exclusively on sustained performance tasks.

To implement the program, Connecticut solicited the involvement of other states, then sought and received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Six other states-- Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin-- have decided to join in the project.

The role of the teacher is vital to the project’s outcome, since a change in the form of assessment will inevitably affect classroom instruction. Not coincidentally, says Baron, the tasks used to assess students also model good pedagogy. The success or failure of each task hinges on guided instruction, in which the teacher poses questions but leaves it up to the student to find a strategy. Says Baron, “This is the teacher as catalyst, the teacher as facilitator.’'

To begin implementing the project, officials this fall began training teachers from about 35 schools in the participating states and from the Coalition of Essential Schools, a network of high schools piloting the reform ideas of educator Theodore Sizer. During the workshops, officials outlined sample tasks and methods of scoring, as well as guidelines teachers can use to design their own tasks.

“Teachers will not be mere implementors of someone else’s tasks, but they can design and implement them as well,’' says Grant Wiggins, former director of research for the Coalition of Essential Schools.

Part of the challenge facing the teachers assigned to develop tasks will be to come up with projects that are truly meaningful to the student. In addition, each task must be “connective.’' That is, it should call upon the student to put together the necessary fragments of knowledge to solve the problem. “We’re trying to provide a real-world context,’' says Baron. “We’re looking at the richness of the task in the sense that it leads to other problems, and raises other questions.’'

Altogether, it is an ambitious agenda--and one that raises questions, even among admirers. For one thing, no one really knows whether changing what is tested will have any effect on teaching. That is “a hunch,’' says Wiggins, who is working with Connecticut on the project. “We’ll see if it works out that way.’'

Senta Raizen, director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, offers praise, but foresees one potential pitfall of the “teacher as catalyst’’ approach. “My concern is that this may aggravate the notion teachers have that hands-on science consists of observation and recording, period,’' she says. “If that’s all you do, you’re not going to get very far. You need to ask why you observe, why you record.’'

Another nagging question, Baron admits, is how to score student performance.

“How do we give individual grades?’' she asks. “We think we’re getting somewhere, but we can’t tell you whether it works yet. Our task would be easier if we were dealing with just the subject matter. But this is a holistic approach. We don’t want to know just whether the kids know a set of formulas. We want to know: Can they work together, can they carry out a task?’'

Ultimately, the greatest obstacle to the success of performance-based assessment may be political. As Grant Wiggins notes, it all comes back to the long-standing love affair with standardized testing.

“The technical issues are persnickety, but solvable,” he says. “The question is, ‘Are we willing to spend money on public relations to convince the public that standardized tests are inadequate?’”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Testing A New kind Of Test