Officials Worry About Pressures Placed on Assessments

By Lynn Olson — July 12, 2000 5 min read

The push to hold schools and students accountable for their performance based primarily on test scores has put unprecedented pressures on state testing systems, according to attendees at the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual conference on large-scale assessment.

A number of sessions at the recent gathering here were devoted to finding better ways to communicate with policymakers and the public about the appropriate and inappropriate uses of tests."We have rushed far too quickly, in my opinion, to assessments with high stakes to them, never giving a chance for standards to have meaning in the classroom,” asserted Douglas Christensen, the commissioner of education in Nebraska. “What I think we’re getting across the country is not standards-driven reform, it’s assessment-driven reform and, too often, test-driven reform.”

“We’re all just going crazy,” added Gerry Shelton, an administrator in the California Department of Education, “because as we move to higher and higher stakes, it just intensifies all the issues we’ve traditionally faced.”

Those issues, he said, range from test security, administration, and scoring to broader questions about whether tests are aligned with a state’s academic standards or with classroom instruction. “The technical burden associated with all our testing programs has increased dramatically,” Mr. Shelton said.

Title I Compliance

By Oct. 1, for example, states must submit evidence to the federal government that their assessment systems meet new requirements under the Title I remedial education program. The law that reauthorized the program in 1994 requires states to include students with disabilities and limited English proficiency in their assessment systems and to break out achievement results for those students. In deciding whether schools and districts have made adequate yearly progress, states may exclude test scores only for those students who have been in a local district for less than a full academic year.

But a study of state policies in the 1998-99 school year, presented at the June 25-28 conference, suggests that many states may be out of compliance with the law. The analysis, by Charlene Rivera of George Washington University and Charles W. Stansfield of Second Language Testing Inc., based in Bethesda, Md., found that of the 35 states with exemptions related to time limits, 21 allowed limited-English-proficient students to be exempted from their testing programs for up to three years; 11 states for up to two years; and two for more than three years. One state had no time limit.

“The fact is there’s a big problem here,” said Sue Rigney, an education specialist in the Title I office of the U.S. Department of Education. “The issue of inclusion has been the biggest challenge for states. It’s been a long-standing practice to exempt either special education or non-English-speakers.”

In a June 8 letter to chief state school officers, Michael Cohen, the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, wrote: “Based on the evidence we have seen to date, it is becoming increasingly clear that few state policies or practices for including limited-English-proficient students in assessments meet the Title I requirements.”

Similarly, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states had until July 1 to craft alternative assessments for students whose disabilities are so severe they cannot participate in state and district tests. (“Alternate-Test Plans Prove Challenging,” June 21, 2000.)

A study released at the conference by the National Center for Educational Outcomes, based at the University of Minnesota, found that most states were close to meeting the IDEA deadline. But the report notes that nine states planned to base their alternative assessments on separate standards or skill sets that were not linked to the states’ regular education standards.

According to federal law, alternate assessments are supposed to be aligned with the curriculum standards set for all students.

States also are struggling with how to provide appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities or limited fluency in English. Mr. Stansfield pointed out that most of the accommodations provided to English-language learners are nonlinguistic ones, such as extra time, that do not address the students’ language needs.

Public Backlash

Many of the experts gathered here suggested that the demands now being placed on tests have exceeded the tests’ capacity.

Psychometricians “have long been worried about whether the testing technology is too fragile for the burdens it’s now being saddled with,” said Michael J. Feuer, the executive director of the Center for Education at the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The difference now, he argued, is that the “backlash, if there is one, is primarily a movement of the general public—that is, parents and students—who are raising their voices about the quantity and quality of testing going on.”

One problem, Mr, Feuer said, is the attempt to use the same tests both to measure whether teaching and learning have occurred and as an incentive to change instruction. “Valid measures of achievement can easily be confounded when those measures are associated with rewards and punishments,” he cautioned.

“We have a very weak understanding as a state of the purposes, the focus, and the inferences you can make from large-scale assessment,” added H. Gary Cook, the state testing director in Wisconsin. “Maybe one of the answers in promoting less backlash is to try and communicate as much as we can.”

Others worry that the emphasis on state tests has led to a reduction in district testing programs, eliminating a variety of assessments that might be more closely linked to classroom instruction. Nebraska, for example, is encouraging districts to create their own assessments linked to standards, rather than relying on a statewide exam.

But Judith Johnson, the deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the federal Education Department, warned against overreacting. “As horror stories emerge, the natural impulse will be to abolish tests,” she said. “Should we test at all? How else will we ensure that children are held to high standards?”

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Officials Worry About Pressures Placed on Assessments


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