Assessment Alternative Seen Honing Teachers' Skills, Observations

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When Mary Ann Cockman asks her kindergarten pupils to draw self-portraits at the start of the school year, their portrayals often consist of "a large head, two eyes, and a stick for a body.''

When she asks them to do the same thing later in the year, she says, their renderings become more detailed, acquiring ears, mouths, lips, lipstick, eyebrows, eyelashes, fingers, shoes, rectangular legs--even designs on their clothing.

Ms. Cockman says the student portfolios she collects to document such progress--as well as the detailed checklists and written evaluations she prepares on each child--have helped her become more attuned to the ways young children think and grow.

"You learn to look at children differently--the wheels are kind of turning'' as they process knowledge, solve problems, and resolve conflicts, she says.

Thomson Elementary School in Davison, Mich., where Ms. Cockman teaches, is one of 37 schools in the country where teachers are piloting a system of assessment designed to provide an alternative to standardized tests and traditional report cards in the early grades.

The "Work Sampling System'' was developed by Samuel J. Meisels, a professor of education and an associate dean for research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Mr. Meisels' voice has been part of the chorus of experts in recent years who warn against traditional school "readiness'' gauges and standardized tests in the early grades. Such tests, he and others contend, are unreliable for young children and have been used inappropriately to delay school entry, retain large numbers of young children, and justify rote-skill instruction.

The goal of the Work Sampling System, Mr. Meisels says, is not only to "replace group-administered achievement testing with teacher-focused performance assessments,'' but also to improve both teaching practices and children's experiences in the preschool-to-grade 3 period.

Three-Tiered System

About 6,000 children and 250 teachers are involved in the project, which is being piloted in schools in Fort Worth; Brattleboro, Vt.; Washington, D.C.; Massachusetts; several Michigan communities; and three Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in New Mexico and South Dakota.

The system includes separate sets of guidelines for preschool-to-3rd-grade classrooms, with introductory materials for teachers and families. Teachers using the system complete a detailed checklist tracking children's performance three times in the year on seven domains: personal/social development, language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social and cultural awareness, art and music, and physical development.

Teachers also collect samples of children's work in each of the domains at least three times in the year, including tasks asked of all children and individual items that can vary by child.

Based on the checklists, portfolios, and other observations, the teachers three times a year also complete a "summary report,'' or profile evaluating a child's performance, strengths, and difficulties in each domain. Such reports are designed to serve as a basis for communicating with other teachers, parents, and administrators and for planning instruction.

The system is consistent with a national movement in assessing early-childhood development.

Last year, for example, the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation began marketing an alternative early-childhood assessment system involving anecdotal record-keeping.

In addition, the National Education Goals Panel has proposed the development of an early-childhood assessment system to help monitor progress toward the first national education goal of insuring that all children enter school ready to learn. Some schools and states, moreover, have been exploring portfolios and other assessment tools as they move toward phasing out traditional tests and report cards in the early grades.

Cautions on Uses

Mr. Meisels contends, however, that there is nothing as comprehensive as the Work Sampling System "that has empirical data to support it at that age range.''

Initial studies to determine whether other experts would rate children the same way their classroom teachers do based on the portfolios and checklists have shown "extremely high'' reliability, Mr. Meisels says. A study of the validity of the system as compared to an individually administered norm-referenced standardized test involving a sample of about 100 children also showed promising results, he adds.

Mr. Meisels cautions, however, that the Work Sampling System should not be used as a "gatekeeping device'' for school entry or promotion. And while data derived from the system could be used to compare the performance of classrooms or large groups, he adds, its chief purpose is to assess individual children's progress over time, gauge achievement against curriculum goals, and tailor instruction to children's needs.

Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of education at the University of Colorado and the author of studies on the adverse effects of retention in the early grades, says the biggest danger in introducing alternative early-childhood assessments occurs "when people take a measure [designed] for one purpose and retrofit it for another.''

Much more experimentation and fieldwork in the higher grades are needed, she maintains, to reliably use such data to rate the quality of teachers and schools.

"The kinds of preliminary data we've seen are sufficient to justify classroom uses of these assessments, but would not be sufficient for external accountability purposes,'' she says.

Teacher Education Tool

One of the most useful functions of such assessments, experts say, is to help teachers learn more about child development.

The Work Sampling System offers "the kinds of tools and resources that it would be important for teachers at that level to have,'' says Edward D. Roeber, the director of student-assessment programs for the Council of Chief State School Officers. The council is working with 11 states to design a primary-level assessment system.

Deploying alternative assessments as a tool to help educate teachers is "absolutely the most important use for them,'' says the Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner.

"We're doing remedial work for what should be done in teacher education'' to teach observational skills from a developmental perspective, Mr. Gardner says.

JoAnne Lowe, a kindergarten teacher at Copeland Elementary School in Dexter, Mich., says the Work Sampling System has helped her become a better observer of "the whole gamut'' of children's needs--including their physical growth and personal and social development--and has "made me aware of areas I wasn't strong at.''

"One of the best things about it is that children do not fail,'' says Janice Brown, the principal of Kettering Elementary School in Willow Run, Mich. "What you are measuring a child against is themselves, not a false presumption like a grade or test. If no growth is evident, then we can look at it and look at how we are going to change our system.''

Parents like the detailed feedback they get from teachers using the system, backers say, and it buoys children's self-esteem.

"Kids by end of year are able to look at their portfolio and see their own growth,'' says Penny Butler, a kindergarten teacher at Garfield Elementary School in Flint, Mich.

Labor Intensive

Perhaps the biggest drawback about the system is how time consuming it is.

"It takes a tremendous amount of time to do this thoroughly on each child,'' Ms. Lowe says.

"You can't do other kinds of assessment on top of this assessment and not really have an overload,'' Ms. Cockman of Davison adds.

Maurice Sykes, the director of early-childhood programs for the Washington, D.C., schools, also notes that the system is apt to be most effective in schools already committed to revamping the early grades.

"It assumes the user is either implementing developmentally appropriate practice or wants to move in that direction,'' he says.

For teachers in his district, which is implementing a number of reforms in its primary grades and had already been piloting "continuous progress'' report cards, "it gave them a management system for something they are already doing,'' Mr. Sykes says.

While they applaud the level of training and technical assistance provided by Mr. Meisels and his colleagues, some educators still predict it will take a few years for them to become comfortable using the system.

Mr. Gardner also concedes it will take time to "develop canons of looking and listening''--like those established in other art forms to rate performance--that policymakers would consider acceptable for accountability purposes. He also advises teachers be involved fully in efforts to systematize the scoring of such systems.

"One of the hard questions educators have to answer is: Are we interested in knowing how children compare to one another, or are we interested in knowing how much children are learning?'' Ms. Brown says. "If we have decided we are more interested in knowing how much children are learning, we must do something like this.''

Vol. 12, Issue 17

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