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Multiple-Choice Testing: An 'Intellectual Kudzu'?

To the Editor:

How sad that a confluence of limited funding, political pressures, and its own history of empire-building has led the National Assessment Governing Board to propose an increase in testing combined with a reduction in the kinds of items and tasks that might actually tell us something worthwhile about student learning ("Board Ponders New Format To Make NAEP More Cost-Effective, Useful," Jan. 24, 1996).

This route for the National Assessment of Educational Progress was perhaps predictable. The governing board has often approved smaller percentages of performance tasks than recommended by its subject-area advisory groups. It has also consistently pushed to expand naep, seeking to make it more like a national accountability exam than an informational assessment. It has initiated proposals for more, and more frequent, testing, and for testing to lower and lower levels, from nation to state to district.

Yes, more performance items are more expensive than multiple-choice. So is testing more often. It is not a surprise, therefore, that facing limited funds, the governing board has made the wrong choice: more tests with more multiple-choice questions. This will provide the public with a larger accumulation of weaker information--quantity over quality.

In the past, the National Assessment Governing Board has at times heeded the voices of the educational community--that is why NAEP began to include performance tasks. It is time for educators and their organizations to loudly insist that the United States does not need another multiple-choice test. We are overrun with these tests, an intellectual kudzu choking the flowers of real learning out of schools. The nation would be best served by occasional, performance-based, matrix-sample assessments to supplement other forms of educational data. This is what NAEP should be and could be.

Pamela Zappardino
Executive Director
National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest)
Cambridge, Mass.

Inspection of British Schools Performed by Three Groups

To the Editor:

While the recent Commentary on the inspection of British schools ("On Knowing the Secret of Schools," Jan. 17, 1996) gave a fair overview of the practice of inspection at its best, it is unclear as to which group of inspectors are under discussion. References to a 155-year history imply that the focus was on Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools; but these days HMI, as Her Majesty's inspectors are called, do little direct inspecting.

Schools in England can now be inspected by three groups of people. First, there are the HMI, who were established in 1840 to check that public financial assistance to schools was being well spent and to advise on improvements. Second, there are inspection teams under contract to the Office for Standards in Education, or OFSTED, which trains inspectors, manages inspection contracts, and reports on the mandatory inspections required by recent legislation. Third, there are district inspectors or advisers, who may win inspection contracts managed by OFSTED and/or inspect schools in whole or in part at the request of the district superintendent of schools.

In terms of accountability, HMI technically report to the queen, but in practice report to the Department of Education; contracted inspection teams report to OFSTED, while district inspectors/advisers report to their superintendent.

School inspection has undergone profound change in Britain following legislation in 1992. This legislation requires that public schools be inspected every four years by independent inspection teams, and it established OFSTED to organize competitive tendering for inspection contracts. The number of Her Majesty's inspectors was reduced very substantially, and their primary role changed to training people who wished to become contracted inspectors or monitoring the new system. Many became inspectors under the new system, but they are no longer Her Majesty's inspectors.

District budgets were also cut in order to help fund the newly privatized system; and so districts were forced either to lay off some of their own inspectors or to win contracts for inspecting their own schools, or schools in other districts.

Most of Her Majesty's inspectors formerly worked an area, within which they would get to know both district and school administrators. They therefore had a good understanding of the local context within which districts and schools were working. After they had reported, these inspectors made themselves available for valuable follow-up support to both the district and the school. That is not part of the new contractual arrangements, though district inspectors who have conducted an inspection under contract will typically engage in follow-up work, either at the request of the school or the district.

While professional judgment remains a key element of school inspection it must be recognized that the practice of mandatory inspection follows a document put out by OFSTED, "Handbook for the Inspection of Schools," which many experienced inspectors have found to be a somewhat restrictive template.

Christopher Farmer
Los Gatos, Calif.

Editor's Note: Thomas A. Wilson, who wrote the Commentary Mr. Farmer refers to, gives a full history and detailed explanation of English school inspection in its many guises in his book on the subject, Reaching for a Better Standard (Teachers College Press, 1996).

Vol. 15, Issue 21

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