Testing Shifts From Memorization To Investigation in Littleton, Colo.

By Robert Rothman — April 22, 1992 15 min read

“Ten years from now,’' said Brian Letvin, a mathematics teacher, “it’s not going to look exactly the same way it does now.’'

To help her students begin working on a research project that will cap their final year at Mark Twain Elementary School here, Margie Zyzda, a 5th-grade teacher, is working with them on the topics they propose to investigate.

She takes aside one pupil, who has proposed studying the question: What are the different types of cats?

“My concern,’' Ms. Zyzda tells the student, “is that you will come up with a list.’'

Perhaps, she suggests, the pupil could study how the cats are different. Or, compare a lion with a domestic cat.

The difference between the student’s initial idea and Ms. Zyzda’s suggestions is at the heart of what Twain and a rapidly growing number of schools--including nearby Littleton High School--are attempting to do.

Rather than ask students to memorize facts, these schools are designing assessments that ask them to use their knowledge to solve problems and to think critically, and to demonstrate their abilities by writing essays or performing experiments.

But while national officials anticipate that such approaches will be at the heart of a proposed nationwide system of assessments, and a host of states and districts plan to develop them or have piloted them in some form, Twain is one of the few schools that have had the assessments in place schoolwide for some time.

It offers, then, a glimpse into the future of assessment.

“My sense is that Twain is head and shoulders above most other schools I have seen in its efforts to implement performance-based assessment,’' said the school’s new principal, Kenneth Turner, who came here from Massachusetts last July.

In the three years the system has been in place, Mr. Turner and teachers here contend, the assessments have achieved the goal, propounded by their advocates, of driving curriculum and instruction toward a focus on problem-solving, rather than rote learning.

And, they note, the assessments have also sparked valuable discussions among the staff members about what students should be expected to know and be able to do.

But, they caution, the effort is extremely time-consuming and costly, and faces resistance from more tradition-minded teachers and parents.

Moreover, said Mr. Turner, the assessments remain “one piece of the entire picture’’ of student achievement. That picture, he said, should also include scores from traditional standardized tests.

“It is not our belief that this will replace everything that is out there,’' he said. “What’s important here is trying new things. We’re building a bridge to the future and walking on it at the same time.’'

‘Peak Performance’

In many respects, Littleton is an unlikely site for an educational experiment.

Located in a relatively affluent suburb of Denver, the 15,300-pupil district has long been highly regarded in the area for its schools. The dropout rate in the district is only 4.4 percent; 80 percent of its graduates go on to higher education.

“We were not starting from the position that this is a crappy school and we need to fix it,’' said Timothy Westerberg, the principal of Littleton High School, the oldest of the district’s three high schools. “We’re darn good, and we want to stay this way.’'

The reform process began in 1987, when the school board adopted a strategic plan that focused on meeting the changing needs of students, restructuring, and assessment. But in keeping with Colorado’s tradition of local control over education, the board also endorsed school-based decisionmaking and encouraged each school to go about its reforms in its own way.

“It was district policy to press the issues, but not require uniformity,’' said Grant Wiggins, a Rochester, N.Y.-based assessment consultant who has worked with the Littleton schools. “They see the distinction between standards and standardization better than I have ever seen it.’'

Although all 22 of the district’s schools have moved toward the board’s stated goals, Mark Twain and Littleton High School have moved the furthest with a whole-school change, according to Christine Johnson, the executive director for K-12 education of the Littleton public schools.

Twain, a 420-pupil, K-5 school--which honors its namesake by labeling the boys’ rooms “Tom Sawyer’’ and the girls’ rooms “Becky Thatcher’'--began its restructuring effort by declaring as its mission: “We will facilitate student growth toward peak performance every moment of every day.’'

“The more we looked into it,’' said the school’s former principal, Monte C. Moses, “the more we realized we had to change the way we did business.’'

The school set out toward that goal, he said, by creating an assessment system that was “basically indistinguishable from good instruction.’'

Specifically, noted Jan May, a 1st-grade teacher, the assessment would ensure that students could demonstrate their performance, rather than simply soak up information from teachers.

“We wanted students to be producers, not consumers,’' she said.

The faculty members also wanted to instill skills that traditional teaching omitted, such as the ability to gather information and report it in a variety of formats, added Karen Quinlan, a 4th-grade teacher.

“Those are skills they will use their entire lives, no matter what they do,’' she said.

The teachers and Mr. Moses began by creating a research assessment. They launched it for 5th graders, so that the project could be a culminating activity for students about to leave the school, Ms. May said.

In the assessment, students--like Ms. Zyzda’s pupil who is interested in cats--choose a topic they want to investigate. The following week, they spend half of each day, in libraries and in class, researching their topic, writing a report on a computer, and drawing a visual representation of their report.

They then present their paper to a panel--which will include their teacher, the school’s principal, and an outside observer--who will evaluate their performance. The projects are judged, on a 0-to-4 scale, according to a range of factors, including the content and style, the use of language conventions, and their oral and visual presentations.

The topics for the assessment vary widely. One day this month, for example, students presented papers on cancer treatments, global warming, computers, and Albert Einstein, among other subjects.

Allowing students to choose their own topics ensures that they are motivated to perform well on the project, said Barbaralynn Bitzer, a 4th- and 5th-grade teacher.

Students interviewed here tended to agree.

“I especially liked that I got to pick my own question,’' said Katie Pieper, a 5th grader whose project examined what inspired great artists.

Expanding the System

Once the 5th-grade assessment was in place, the Twain faculty expanded it to include earlier grades as well.

Even 1st graders will prepare research projects, although in a modified form, Ms. May, the 1st-grade teacher, pointed out.

In addition to the research assessment, Twain has put in place a thinking-skills assessment, which evaluates students’ ability to make predictions and determine probability; a writing assessment, which measures student responses to a text; and a mathematics assessment, which gauges students’ measurement skills, use of fractions, and creativity by asking them to design a playground.

The school is also pilot-testing a cultural-literacy assessment for 5th graders, and is redesigning a science assessment that would allow them to conduct experiments and analyze data.

The students’ assessments, along with other information about their school performance, are entered into a portfolio, which parents can see.

The result, according to Mr. Turner, provides a much broader picture of students’ achievement than simple standardized-test scores.

“No single indicator provides the entire picture of a child’s performance,’' he said. “They’re like bathing suits: They’re revealing in what they show, but what’s crucial is what they hide.’'

Not Just ‘Seat Time’

Littleton High, meanwhile, began its restructuring effort by recognizing that the traditional high-school system rewarded “seat time,’' rather than achievement.

As a brochure produced for the school states: “If Johnny is able to sit through four years of English and a few other basic subjects, and fake his way through a few simple tests, he’s got himself a diploma and a tassle for his rearview mirror.’'

To ensure that students excel at school, not merely get by, the school agreed to scrap coursework requirements and replace them with a set of 19 learner outcomes, which students must master in order to graduate. (See box, page 22.)

Under the system, which went into effect last fall for this year’s freshman class, students must demonstrate proficiency in all 19 outcomes, and excellence in at least two of them, to earn a diploma.

“We want to establish habits of mind, so that when you leave here, you are good at something,’' Mr. Westerberg, the principal, said. “It’s not O.K. just to be proficient at everything.’'

By the end of 1992, the school is expected to produce a set of demonstration assessment tasks, along with the standards for proficiency and excellence, for each of the 19 competencies.

“These will give parents a good, solid feel for what it is kids are expected to do,’' Mr. Westerberg said.

Many of these assessments have already been drafted and are being piloted-tested. For example, a “communications’’ task asks students to write a letter to a public policymaker about the official’s position on a current political issue. A proficient letter is one in which the writer clearly states an opinion and uses facts to support it; uses the appropriate format and wording; and makes few grammatical errors.

An excellent letter is one in which the writer explains the writer’s position and refutes an alternative position, uses interesting vocabulary and varied sentence structure, and makes essentially no errors.

Visible Standards

People involved in the system at both of the schools agree that the new assessments provide a fuller picture of student achievement than do traditional tests.

“We see how much they do know, instead of [how much they are] guessing,’' said Ms. Bitzer, the Twain teacher. “Everything they have learned up to 5th grade goes into the project.’'

Mr. Moses also pointed out that, when Twain expanded the research assessment to earlier grades, the 4th graders soon began to perform at the level 5th graders performed at in the first year of the new system.

“That was an indication the assessment had the effect of elevating the performance of all kids,’' he said.

Deborah L. Novotny, the parent of two Littleton High students, said that her son, Josh, a 12th grader, works harder in school than he ever has because the school expects more from him.

“I haven’t had to ride his case,’' she said. “He’s not normally that way.’'

Mr. Turner, Twain’s principal, also pointed out that the high level of performance has generated some stimulating discussions in his school. One student’s project, which examined who settled Colorado, provoked a debate on Native Americans, he said.

‘I Can’t Go Back’

Teachers say that the new assessments also drive changes in curriculum and instruction, as proponents of alternative assessment had predicted.

In particular, said Ms. May, the 1st-grade teacher, teachers at Twain have scrapped workbooks in early grades, and place a greater reliance on hands-on materials.

“We understand the textbook is not the curriculum,’' she said. “I don’t think a teacher in the building follows the book in that way.’'

Similarly, her colleagues noted, English classes are using more trade books, and the library is ordering more nonfiction books and news-magazines.

Teachers at both levels also said they spend less time lecturing and more time allowing students to come up with ideas.

“It’s changing the way we taught for years and years and years,’' said Ms. Bitzer. “I’m not the one telling them what to do. I almost take a back seat and let them go.’'

“I can’t go back to where I was, even if I wanted to,’' added Glenda Miller, an English teacher at Littleton High.

The high-school teachers also said that the assessment system is encouraging them to think more about the connections among the disciplines.

The school’s science teachers, for example, have developed a two-year “integrated’’ science course, which includes material on earth, life, and physical sciences.

In addition, all teachers, in developing the course catalogue, were required to show which of the 19 outcomes the course would lead toward, said Mr. Westerberg. That way, he explained, students could see that work in one course could be related to work in another.

As an example, suggested Charles Mitchell, a history teacher, “a student might be in a debate class and do an ethics essay, which might fit the persuasion [requirement] in English.’'

‘Much More Stimulating’

One of the most beneficial aspects of the new system, said Daniel Brickley, a social-studies teacher, is the fact that it provoked teachers to discuss what the standards for students should be.

“This place is so much more stimulating than ever before,’' he said. “It was a deadly place for decades.’'

Such discussions have permeated every department in the school, from social studies and English to music and physical education, added Roger Whitworth, a physical-education teacher.

The teachers have found it difficult to determine what proficiency in tasks such as cardiovascular fitness or strength might be, Mr. Whitworth said. As an example, he noted, one student can perform 16 pull-ups, while another cannot do any.

"[The process] has made our department check down to the bones,’' he said.

But such efforts, teachers at both schools agreed, take a great deal of time.

“That’s been a problem all along. There hasn’t been time,’' said Jerry Cox, a technology teacher at Littleton High.

Mr. Mitchell noted that the school established a foundation to raise $1 million, primarily to pay for substitute teachers and after-hours time for teachers to write the assessments and work on the standards. But the foundation has to date raised only $200,000 in cash and $100,000 in in-kind contributions, according to Mr. Westerberg.

Mr. Brickley also pointed out that standards-setting exercises can only work if teachers set the standards themselves, rather than having them imposed from the district or state level.

By contrast, he argued, a policy adopted last month by the Pennsylvania Board of Education, which sets learner outcomes all students must attain in order to graduate, is doomed to failure. Teachers will resist such top-down mandates, Mr. Brickley predicted.

“That’s the way it’s always been,’' he said. “It will fail unless teachers do it themselves.’'

Some Are ‘Not Comfortable’

But while most people involved in the changes consider them beneficial, a few teachers and parents have resisted them.

In a letter this month to the Littleton Independent, Linda Young, a Littleton High School English teacher, expressed “grave doubts’’ about the school’s experiment, and suggested that “the staff is sharply divided in its support of the plan.’'

Among her concerns were that the student outcomes will be “all but impossible to evaluate,’' and that “‘lecture’ is a dirty word as we focus more on ‘cooperative learning,’ a slow process of teaching where ‘the blind lead the blind’ as standardized-test scores fall.’'

Some parents at Twain also raised questions about that school’s revised report card, which presented marks on dozens of student abilities, in addition to traditional grades. An editorial in the Rocky Mountain News called the revision “an example of the ‘new age’ of report cards, heavy on measurements of ‘self esteem’ and ‘wellness’ and rather short on whether Johnny knows the location of the Ukraine.’'

Supporters of the programs said that the criticisms reflect the views of a minority of people who are uneasy about the changes.

“This is a real paradigm shift,’' said Ms. Bitzer of Twain. “A lot of people are not comfortable with that.’'

She said that faculty members there were able to win over their colleagues because at least one member of each team-teaching pair was directly involved in the process.

At Littleton High, meanwhile, Mr. Westerberg and the teachers held a series of coffees and have maintained an advisory board that includes representatives of local businesses.

But several teachers acknowledged that they may face additional resistance in the future. The new system, they suggested, may come as a shock to parents who are accustomed to seeing their children do well under the old system.

For example, Mr. Brickley noted that, in trying out an assessment that asked high-school students to “use the past to explain the present and anticipate the future,’' most of the members of his class were “almost unable to cope with it.’'

“Eleventh graders have never been asked to use anything they’ve learned,’' he said.

Parents may also be in for a rude awakening when their children take traditional standardized tests for accountability purposes or college admission, suggested Ms. May.

“I’m not sure how well my kids will do on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills,’' she said. “I don’t teach that way. They don’t fill in answers. They don’t choose from among four answers.’'

Perhaps the most vociferous objections will come later, when the new assessments are used as gateways to graduation, said Ms. Novotny, the parent of two high schoolers.

Although parents may accept the theory that students must demonstrate competency in order to graduate, she said, they may object when their children are required to remain in high school after four years.

“When [parents say] it starts affecting my kid, that’s when it will make the papers,’' Ms. Novotny said.

Refining Reliability

To build more widespread acceptance of the new assessment systems, educators at both schools said they are continuing to refine them.

For example, said Mr. Turner, teachers at Twain are working to ensure that the assessments are valid and reliable. Unlike traditional tests, in which all students answer the same questions and are scored by computer, the performance assessments are evaluated by judges, who may ask different questions of each student.

Littleton High School, meanwhile, received a $15,000 grant from the Denver Foundation to evaluate its program, and teachers on the program-evaluation committee said they expect to use the study to recommend changes.

“Ten years from now,’' said Brian Letvin, a mathematics teacher, “it’s not going to look exactly the same way it does now.’'

In addition to revising their own schools’ programs, administrators from Twain and Littleton High have been meeting, along with a middle-school principal, to discuss the possibility of developing standards common across all school levels.

And Mr. Moses, who is now the director for instruction and elementary education for the neighboring Cherry Creek public schools, said the idea of alternative assessment should continue to spread.

“This was just one seed out of about 1,000 other seeds that need to be planted,’' he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 1992 edition of Education Week as Testing Shifts From Memorization To Investigation in Littleton, Colo.