MacArthur Awards $1.3 Million for National Exams

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The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has awarded a $1.3-million grant to help launch work on a "national examination system" that eventually could be used as the basis for high-school diplomas, college admissions, and employment decisions.

A second national foundation was scheduled to decide this week whether it would award a similarly large sum to the joint project between the National Center on Education and the Economy and the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center.

MacArthur had made the release of its funds contingent on the project's raising at least another $1.1 million.

Several prominent groups, including members of the President's Education Policy Advisory Committee, have urged the development of a new national system to measure students' knowledge in key subjects. But this grant would mark the first concrete attempt to develop such a standard in cooperation with as many as 20 volunteer states and school districts.

"We need an examination system that can focus the attention of students, of parents, and of teachers on a clear set of objectives for learning that go way beyond the basic routine skills on which much of the curriculum is now focused," Marc S. Tucker, president of the ncee, said in explaining the need for such assessments.

Such a system, he added, "will provide real rewards to kids for taking tough courses and studying hard in school."

The proposed exams would be based on a highly publicized "syllabus" of what students should know and be able to do in each subject. Students would have the opportunity to prepare for the assessments in school and to be rewarded for their efforts.

But the project would not attempt to create a national curriculum per se, Mr. Tucker said. The syllabus for each subject would be broad enough so that teachers and school districts could still determine the specific curriculum and texts to be used.

Nor would the project attempt to devise a single national exam, imposed on all states and school systems. Instead, the proposal envisages a multi-level system based on a wide variety of assessments.

Under the plan, each state orschool district might create its own examining board, which would be responsible for preparing its own syllabi and exams and training teachers to grade them.

An independent "national education standards board" would decide whether the exams met a predetermined national standard. It might calibrate state and local exams to such a standard, so that observers would know how to equate a score on a state or local assessment to a score on the standard national exams.

To facilitate this effort, the proposal suggests that the national board create exams for each subject to be assessed. These could provide the standard to which state board exams would be calibrated. State boards would also be free to adapt or adopt portions of these assessments.

When fully developed, the proposed system would include three forms of assessment: performance exams, portfolios, and projects.

Students would sit for timed performance examinations that asked them to demonstrate mastery of the syllabus. Although these exams might have some multiple-choice questions, they would also include essays and other tasks that required students to generate their own, more elaborate responses to problems.

Portfolios would be assembled from students' work over many months or years. The portfolios would document their ability to create a number of different work products and to select the best of them.

All of the assessments would stress the application of knowledge and skills in real-life situations, in which there is rarely one right answer.

"We're not talking about the come-in-and-sit-up-straight-and-write-for-five-hours kind of thing that the word 'examination' calls to mind," said Lauren B. Resnick, director of the lrdc in Pittsburgh. "We're talking about something really attuned to our country and to the needs of this time, something that will reflect the great variety of ways that people can demonstrate competence."

As currently envisioned, most students would complete the exams around age 16. But they could take the assessments over a period of years, beginning as early as age 14. Students would also have multiple opportunities for success.

Because such assessments could accommodate a variety of learning styles, said Mr. Tucker, poor and minority students would be likely to perform better than they do on most standardized tests.

The hope is that a system that emphasized solving problems through the use of extended essays, debates, and other less traditional forms of assessment would ratchet up the entire K-12 curriculum to focus more on higher-order skills.

In addition, if such exams were tied to access to jobs or continued study, Mr. Tucker said, students would have a strong incentive to do well on them and to exert effort in school.

The same system could be used to reward school professionals who helped their students to succeed against the new standard.

Creating such a system, the grant proposal notes, would take at least 10 years. And it is not one that all states and school districts would be likely to embrace immediately.

Instead, the ncee and the lrdc propose to work closely with a number of states and districts that have volunteered to band together to create such a standard. The states and districts would include some of those already belonging to the ncee's National Alliance for Restructuring Education and a number of other sites.

Each site would involve classroom teachers in coming up with ideas for what should be included on the syllabus in a particular subject. Staff4members and national experts would pool, sift, and review the ideas.

A national working group of teachers, selected by the participating sites, would then come to agreement on a recommended syllabus. A committee composed of senior representatives from each of the partner states and districts would make the final decision about that syllabus.

Construction of the exams would follow a similar process, beginning with a drafting session involving each of the participating sites, a review by teachers in the field, and adoption of the trial exams by the senior representatives from each jurisdiction.

In each field selected for examination, a panel assembled under contract with an appropriate national curriculum group would review each stage of the work and give advice.

According to Mr. Tucker, the deep involvement of classroom teachers in developing and scoring such exams is central to their success.

The initial goal is to develop pilot assessments in two subjects between January 1991 and June 1992, to administer them to a sample of 300 students, and to grade and calibrate them.

During that same time, a staff-development effort would attempt to publicize the new syllabi and to provide teachers with ideas and materials they could use to help students prepare for the assessments.

According to the proposal, exams in all the core subjects--now envisioned to include reading, writing, math, science, history/geography/civics, and work readiness--might be fully field tested and ready for wide use by 1997.

By the year 2000, the assessments might be usable as the basis for the awarding of diplomas, college admissions, job decisions, and school-incentive plans.

Vol. 10, Issue 15

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