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To the Editor:

The problems of rater reliability reported for the writing portion of Vermont's "pioneering assessment program'' ("RAND Urges Overhaul in Vt.'s Pioneering Writing Test,'' Nov. 10, 1993) clearly point to the urgent need for language-awareness training for teachers, testers, and students alike. The article does not report that the lack of reliability might be, at least in part, due to the nature of the beast: language itself (as opposed to more easily scorable skills such as math and problem-solving).

There are a number of issues that need to be discussed before committing the massive blunder of forcing the students' developing language potential into a ratable shape, for example, by narrowing the samples and reducing the diversity of genres. Haven't we been down that path before? Isn't portfolio assessment specifically designed to prevent such a forced reduction of linguistic expressivity? If the pickle won't fit in the pickling jar, we cut it up. But language cannot be cut and pickled to suit the jar of standardized testing.

Currently, rating appears to be done on the basis of such criteria as voice, detail, grammar, usage, etc. Perhaps these are not the most appropriate criteria to use in evaluating writing. I would advise careful discourse analysis of written language in general and student writing in particular, before attempting to rewrite and simplify rubrics. To adapt the old story of the blind men and the elephant, if a team of zoology judges were to evaluate elephants while standing behind the animals, looking at their rear ends and tails alone, the evaluation could not be much improved by looking more closely, adding the criterion of tail-hair curliness, or whatever.

If I were an elephant, I would like to be evaluated also on my handsome trunk, my intelligence, and my shiny tusks. Therefore, we would advise the judges to walk around the elephants and look at them from all sides.

Language awareness, a burgeoning area of curriculum innovation in Britain, Australia, and many other countries, but hitherto largely ignored in the United States, can provide a number of benefits that are directly relevant to Vermont's important program. In the first place, it can assist the evaluation team in the development of portfolio rubrics and rating criteria that do justice to the living complexity of language. Secondly, it can assist teachers in becoming more aware of the power of language and of instructional conversation, and of the language development of ethnically diverse students.

Third, it can provide students with a deeper understanding and appreciation of language, providing them with control over their own linguistic expression (whether in writing, math, or other subject areas) and a critical perspective on the role of language in social life. Fourth, it is an immensely fascinating approach to language education.

Readers who are interested in finding out more about language awareness and its potential contribution to educational innovation might like to pick up some issues of the new journal Language Awareness, published by Multilingual Matters, or a book by Larry Andrews (of the University of Nebraska) called Language Exploration and Awareness (Longman, 1993).

Language has made us into what we are. As Michael Polanyi once said, our intellectual superiority over animals is almost entirely due to language. By simplifying language, we simplify ourselves.

Leo van Lier
Center for Language in Education
and Work (CLEW)
Monterey Institute of
International Studies
Monterey, Calif.

To the Editor:

Gregory Cizek's essay about "the disappearance of standards'' contains so many flawed assumptions and arguments it would be humorous if it weren't possibly dangerous ("On the Disappearance of Standards,'' Commentary, Nov. 10, 1993). By harkening to a mythical past and calling for the use of educationally damaging tests to make high-stakes decisions that will most harm those least well served by our current educational system, Mr. Cizek fails to offer helpful solutions to real educational problems.

Perhaps Mr. Cizek's fundamental error is to confound standards and tests. To him, the mere existence of multiple-choice, minimum-competency tests with cut-off scores constitutes "standards.'' He fails to acknowledge that the tests he endorses as proxies for standards have served to undermine, not strengthen, educational practice.

His basic premise, that standards have "disappeared,'' is equally flawed. For most students, they never existed.

He finds it "weird'' that the National Assessment of Educational Progress uses samples and isn't high-stakes. Does he find polling instead of questioning every citizen or drawing blood samples instead of draining the entire body equally weird? Sampling can be an efficient and effective tool for evaluation, which Mr. Cizek as an assistant professor of measurement must well know. Why should NAEP be high stakes? Several years of hard sell by proponents of a high-stakes national exam have failed to make a persuasive case that it would improve education, be an intelligent use of limited educational resources, or be fair to diverse populations. Poking fun at overwritten reports from the National Academy of Education is easy enough, but if NAEP levels are inaccurate, as confirmed by repeated independent study of the levels, how can Mr. Cizek justify using such things for high-stakes decisions about students?

What consequences can we infer from Mr. Cizek's approach to standards? Tests will continue to be confounded with actual knowledge and understanding. Raising test scores, regardless of how irrelevant or harmful to good education the tests are, will continue to be the primary goal of schooling. Test-coaching will remain a dominant instructional practice. And an ever-greater pool of young people will be denied educational opportunities and even employment simply because of their performance on one-time, narrow tests.

Our argument with Mr. Cizek is not whether there should be standards. There should be. There are legitimate public debates over how and by whom standards should be set, and how they can be used to improve educational practice and outcomes. Simply calling for simplistic and punitive testing fails to further those discussions.

Monty Neill
National Center for Fair & Open Testing
Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

The touching narrative of personal reminiscences about the dark side of the human condition of school boards ("Requiem for the Superintendency,'' Commentary, Nov. 17, 1993) could have been written by the adult progeny of either school principals about their superintendents or teachers about their principals. Indeed, with little alteration it could apply to anyone subject to the authority--and abuse of authority--of another.

What the author implicitly demands is the anointment--not appointment--of superintendents by boards. The main theme of the article is that a board should employ a superintendent and then get the hell out of the way. The act of employment should constitute a virtual abdication of all authority held at law by the board. This El Jefe or Il Duce approach, in which one person determines for all what constitutes "educational progress,'' is in hopeless dissonance with the institution of representative governance of public education.

The author also sloughs one of the key skills of a superintendent: persuading local citizens--and more specifically, their representatives on the school board--of the wisdom and feasibility of his or her educational proposals. This is not surprising, because it is a skill generally ignored by universities that prepare school administrators.

But the art of persuasion belongs to the family of critical skills (including vision, conceptualization, articulateness, and follow-through) that are indispensable for superintendents. In a matter as contingent as education, reasonable opinion may differ. This is especially true in our times of enormous societal transformation. To hold board members in our post-civil-rights times in contempt and to blame them for generating controversy in education in these troubled days strains credulity to the breaking point.

As a practical matter, the author offers superintendents a potential prescription for job disaster. She recommends that the superintendent build his or her "own constituency'' within the community. Certainly, any superintendent must build public credibility for his or her persona and programs to be effective. But to view this as a way to do battle with the board is to misconstrue the political power base of the superintendent. There is no analogy, for example, between the board and superintendent, on the one hand, and Congress and the President, on the other. In the latter case, both are elected. But the reality is that the superintendent is employed by the elected school board and accountable to the people of the community through the board. When board members sense that the superintendent is end-running the board they feel that they, and their representative function, are being manipulated. And that leads to nothing but trouble in their relationship, because it calls into question the integrity of the superintendent.

The author also refuses to recognize the public burden of business responsibility that state legislatures place on boards. These bodies are charged with approving and monitoring enormous operating and capital budgets. This is non-delegable in substantial part. And it is that way because state legislatures decree it--and back it up with criminal penalties for board members when they refuse or neglect to fulfill their duties.

The redeeming value of the anecdotes recounted in the article, though, is that they underscore the significance of a sound relationship between a school board and its superintendent to enhance the educational program of the district. As with any important relationship, it needs constant and careful nurturing--by both parties. And nostalgia for the settled times of yesteryear, with its patrician board members always acting as perfect gentlemen, is useless in today's diverse and tumultuous world.

Thomas A. Shannon
Executive Director
National School Boards Association
Alexandria, Va.

Vol. 13, Issue 14

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