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To the Editor:

It's wonderful to hear someone critiquing Sesame Street. Yes, Sesame Street embeds letters in a whirlwind of activity and undermines real reading, which requires time, thought, and practice with long conversations.

I have another critique, on ethics.

Sesame Street teaches that snide put-downs are funny and that actions have no consequences. The show constantly puts children and puppets in embarrassing situations to be laughed at. People walk out on each other at the drop of a hat. Ernie puts Bert in a wastebasket. The letter k kicks a lion sky high. A bellhop forgets what he's buying. The Cookie Monster sprays crumbs everywhere, and no none has to clean up. A child eavesdrops or looks in a key hole.

Sesame Street does have good fantasies, too; they should just drop the ones that glorify meanness.

Parents and teachers need to talk to children about the show and teach children to think for themselves whether what goes on is fair or entertaining. How about asking children to find an unfair situation and decide how it could have been handled? It might also help to write critical letters to newspapers and to Sesame Street.

Paul Burke,
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Your article on performance assessment ("New Tests on Performance Raise Questions," Sept. 12, 1990), reminds educational policymakers that there are a number of technical and implementation concerns that deserve attention.

The concerns raised by educators in the story suggest that those involved in pilot-testing performance assessments should examine strategies for: (1) preparing administrators, teachers, and parents for the unveiling of test results, which may more clearly indicate the weaknesses of our educational system; and (2) determining the proper uses of performance assessment.

Convincing the public that a single score on any assessment tool is an inappropriate use of testing will be a difficult task. Some people will always want simple answers to difficult questions. Nevertheless, this is one of several areas that deserve thoughtful consideration as we discuss how to move toward performance assessment with, as one observer noted, "our eyes open."

Unfortunately, however, what some readers will take away from this article will be feelings of unease evoked by Chester E. Finn Jr.'s use of the "Star Wars" metaphor. Whether intended or not, that image may leave many with an inaccurate vision of the potential positive outcomes performance assessment offers for school-improvement efforts.

The coupling of assessment strategies to local curricula and formative purposes is greatly needed if schools and students are to understand where resources should be allocated. Performance assessment has important ramifications for school restructuring. Movement toward performance assessment aligns the test with what teachers, parents, and administrators value in the curriculum. Schools that are preparing to implement site-based management may be uniquely situated to develop performance assessments linked directly to their curriculum.

The Star Wars metaphor, however, leaves readers with a feeling that performance assessment is to educational reform as Ronald Reagan's dream of an impregnable screen against nuclear attack was to U.S. defense policy. That metaphor evokes the feeling that performance assessment is one of those wild visions that will cost Americans millions of dollars and cannot produce any real progress. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Performance assessment, that is, oral examinations, long essay examinations, exhibitions of student achievement, and/or portfolio development, exists today in other countries and, more importantly, has been part of the American educational experience for many years.

Countries that continue to outperform us in international comparisons are making use of these assessment tools. Both England and Germany have a combination of national and local performance assessments. England's reform act of 1986 moved it further in the direction of multiple indicators of achievement while making use of classroom /teacher-developed assessments. Germany's assessment program includes rigorous written and oral examinations.

In Europe, these assessments extend into the vocational arena. And the field of vocational education offers some excellent examples here of how regular education might take advantage of the performance assessment. One such example is bet8ter collaboration with the business community in determining what skills are needed in the workforce.

Mr. Finn's metaphor, moreover, completely ignores the fact that we have regularly practiced many forms of performance assessment in the United States--creative-writing contests, school debates, essay and research prizes, as well as oral reports, exhibitions, and projects.

What we have not done is systematically give these kinds of assessments to all students. We have not systematically collected this data and used it to improve our own practices at the local level.

With hard work and careful consideration of the possible pitfalls, valid and reliable performances for testing can be designed by schools, districts, and states.

The alternative is to rely on norm-referenced, multiple-choice standardized tests to improve instructional practices, even when most of those instruments are developed by individuals external to the school environment.

Such tests are loosely connected to an individual school's curriculum. They provide no information on an individual student's strengths and weaknesses, and they cannot be used for formative assessment purposes.

Moreover, they drive the curriculum away from higher-order thinking and performance skills and toward lower-order cognitive tasks that fail to prepare students for the challenging world they will face when they leave school.

The distinguished group of educators who worked with the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy found that these kind of tests cannot continue to be used for purposes they were not designed for. We must move in a new direction.

As the commission stated, we should move away from viewing tests as ''selection devices or measuring instruments" and toward "a vision of tests as instruments that can be used by individuals and institutions to promote human development."

Frederick J. Frelow Center for School Reform Teachers College Columbia University New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Jane Healy should try watching Sesame Street with a child instead of a clipboard and stopwatch ("Why Sesame Street is 'Bad News for Reading,"' Commentary, Sept. 19, 1990). If dumping on poor Big Bird is vital to her career, she should at least come up with some fresh and interesting new charges to replace the ones we heard 20 years ago. Golly, Jane sounds like a real Oscar the Grouch!

B. Freer Freeman Arlington, Va.

Vol. 10, Issue 5

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