Assessment Commentary

Classroom Contradictions

By Sheryl Boris Schacter — March 07, 2001 6 min read
The debate surrounding the MCAS exam reflects the massive confusion concerning the purposes and methods of educational assessment in general.

Massachusetts, like so many other states, has its own version of a high-stakes test. In recent weeks, as the details of scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System have made their way from the state department of education to the school districts to the homes of test-takers to the floor of the Statehouse, they have been accompanied by extravagant commentary. We have been so inundated with analyses and argument that it becomes difficult to determine the lessons learned.

For instance, are the tests and the scores provided to help teachers identify and remediate student deficits? Are the scores for the purpose of punishing students who have not been able to perform adequately on this one test? Is the intention of the scores, and their publication for public consumption, to prove the ineptitude of the teaching force, to anger the parents, or to embarrass the students? Is the purpose to drive the point home that there are concrete effects of economic privilege on test results? Does the item analysis facilitate teachers’ curricular adjustments? Is the agenda political and not educational, with the true struggle being between local and state control of instructional content? And lastly, to what extent does this single instrument embody our best thinking about assessment?

The debate underscores the massive confusion around the purposes and methods of educational assessment in general. Although it is the high-stakes MCAS exam in any state that is garnering headlines, the administration and articulation of this exam is but a symptom of the struggle between the profession’s understanding of assessment and the public’s lack of confidence in the profession.

Schoolpeople have worked diligently in the last 20 years to develop multiple ways in which students can demonstrate what they know and are able to do. Increasingly, classroom-based assessments have been structured to consider students’ experiences, cultural backgrounds, learning styles, and cognitive strengths. There has long been a recognition among educators that paper-and-pencil tests are limited. To augment these traditional methodologies, teachers have been using portfolios, performance assessment, and exhibition. Each of these strategies requires application of content, therefore necessitating a much deeper comprehension of the subject matter than any one exam would require. Moreover, in the aggregate, demonstrations of knowledge and skills are proven over time and from a variety of perspectives. In the best classrooms in Massachusetts, curriculum, instruction, and assessment have all been aligned to match an ideology of high academic standards, attention to individual students, and teacher accountability.

However, even in these exemplary classrooms, we have a long way to go before the entrenched values of competition and graded performance are replaced in all areas of daily school life. Student achievement is continually undermined by such educational practices as tracking, averaging test grades together when students take an exam more than once, and doling out zeros for homework assignments missed. Grading, in each of these instances, is not about giving students or teachers feedback on understanding. Instead, students are punished, social stratification is perpetuated, and promptness and compliance are valued over knowledge acquisition and perseverance.

Educators rightfully argue that the high-stakes nature of the MCAS exam is inappropriate because too many variables affect student test performance, school districts have inequitable resources, and the exam is biased and statistically unreliable. But the contradictions of student assessment during the normal course of a school day left enough of an opening for Massachusetts politicians to follow the national trend of high-stakes testing based on outdated assessment philosophy. The signals from educators have not been explicitly and unambiguously sent to those outside the profession. It is not too late to send them now.

Educators need to figure out what values are being rewarded in the classroom, articulate those values, and reinforce them without embarrassment or apology. If, for example, the teachers in a particular school endorse the concept of high school rank, then the assessment strategies should support that value. In this instance, the value is competition. Student work should not be judged against an objective standard. Rather, students should compete against one another for putting forward the best product. If this notion is objectionable, teachers should not be participating in a system in which children are ranked.

Likewise, if teachers value multiple assessment strategies as equally valid measures of knowledge, then they should allow students to use various ways to demonstrate their understanding. The value here is placed on individual strengths, student interests, and creativity.

Educators need to figure out what values are being rewarded in the classroom, articulate those values, and reinforce them without embarrassment or apology.

These open-ended assessments pose serious challenges to time management and objective evaluation. Therefore, many educators rely more heavily than they would like upon multiple-choice and true/false paper-and-pencil tests as an effective way of assessing many students simultaneously on the same content. There is the tacit agreement that we engage in less-than-perfect practice because of convenience and the constraints of school structure. This argument is uncomfortably similar to that of the state education department and the MCAS. To pursue uniformity and hold everyone accountable to the same standard at the same time, there is no allowance for the academic strengths of individual students or the resource disparities among districts.

There is a big difference, however, between school-based practices and the MCAS exam. For some schools and some districts, the notion of a standard curriculum and accompanying high-stakes tests is forcing a wake-up call and replacing apathy and low expectations with hard work. This is a good thing. For most schools, though, there were high expectations for student work long before this most recent accountability craze. The local level is characterized by a sense of community and care for each student, and a context for understanding individual progress. The educators among us should articulate these values consistently and clearly to the students and to the public. Too much careful thought has been devoted to these alternative assessment strategies to abandon them for MCAS preparation. Teachers and school administrators must return to the values that sparked the development of alternative assessments, reinforce those values in the classroom, and offer state departments of education a plan that includes multiple data sources for the equitable evaluation of every child.

It is naive to believe that high-stakes tests are going away. Therefore, it is the role of professional educators to fashion a school environment that works within a political reality that defines teacher accountability as a single test score. Let us clear up the inconsistencies and ambiguities around the values and purposes of assessment, perfect our new strategies, honor our students, and prepare them for success, however that may be defined.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Classroom Contradictions


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