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Could ‘Open Source’ Testing Help Resolve the Testing Impasse?

By Charles Barone — November 17, 2008 5 min read
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While there is wide disagreement about how to revise the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability system when the law comes up for reauthorization in the next Congress, there is virtual unanimity on one point: No one is happy with the tests currently used by states to measure student achievement.

The two leading proposals to overhaul the federal testing system are, at least at first glance, diametrically opposed.

Hard-line education reformers, such as New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr., are advocating a national test and national standards, as a response to what they see as the “dumbing down” of standards in the face of accountability pressures, and also as a logical policy for a nation trying to maintain its international competitiveness.

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Progressives, most notably Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond, who was a key education adviser to Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign, are frustrated with the quality of existing tests and are advocating a shift in the opposite direction. They want to turn from a system of 50 state tests to one of perhaps thousands of local measures that could vary from district to district.

There is merit to the arguments being advanced by both the national test/“higher standards” side and the local measures/“better quality” side. But there are also serious obstacles that likely would prove insurmountable for either to be adopted, as proposed, as federal policy.

Strong opposition to a national test comes from both the left and the right. In 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives blocked, by a bipartisan vote of 242-174, a proposal by President Clinton to simply make available a nationally developed test to states that chose to use it. With testing now much more controversial than it was 10 years ago, any such proposal would almost certainly be even less politically viable.

Local assessments might be easier to sell politically, but would create other problems, particularly for historically disadvantaged students. These local assessments—homework, papers, and tests created by classroom teachers—of course are already employed in every school district in the country. What those advocating them want now, however, is to make such measures part of state accountability systems.

There is virtual unanimity on one point: No one is happy with the tests currently used by states to measure student achievement.

The problem here is that such measures cannot be compared against one another. Students could be held to very different standards even though they would ultimately be applying to the same colleges and competing for the same jobs.

Poor and minority students and students with disabilities, who historically have been held to lower standards, might return to a time when they repeatedly were told they were doing fine, only to graduate from high school and discover they didn’t have the skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace. Resources that are now allocated on the basis of accountability systems geared to a single and comparable set of state tests—those, for example, for after-school and summer programs, tutoring, teacher training, and new curricula—might be misdirected away from areas that actually need them most, because each district or school would then be measured by different standards and different yardsticks.

One possible way to address the concerns of both the national-test and local-measures proponents, and to avoid or minimize some of their proposals’ concomitant problems, is to create a national databank of “locally” developed test items, an “open source” testing system.

Here’s how it might work:

A nonprofit entity could empanel a group of experts to create items in line with nationally recognized standards, perhaps those used as a basis for the National Assessment of Educational Progress or for international comparisons by the Program for International Student Assessment. The panel would have to represent a broad range of stakeholders—teachers, principals, testing experts, policy wonks, higher education faculty members, college presidents, and business leaders.

Over the course of one or two years, the panel would create a pool of test items that would be piloted and subjected to the usual analyses of psychometric rigor. The goal would be to move beyond multiple-choice items to short-answer, problem-solving, essay, and other formats. A set of strict and objective standards for scoring would have to be part of the package. Items and scoring algorithms would be put into a bank with restricted access and security precautions. States could then draw from this pool in revising their own state testing regimes.

The advantages of such a system would be several:

1. It would not be a government-imposed program (though it could be subsidized in part by federal or state grants), thus avoiding some of the political pitfalls of past efforts.

2. It would be low-cost to states.

3. It would get around the testing-company monopoly, which many observers feel stifles creativity and innovation, or at the very least makes it financially prohibitive.

4. It would move the country toward a consensus on what should be assessed by promoting buy-in from a range of educational stakeholders.

5. It would allow a great deal of flexibility. Not all states would have to use the same test. They could select subsets of items as they chose. The hope would be that a core set could be agreed upon, however, which would allow comparisons between states. This could be done nationally or, if agreement could not be reached at that level, regionally.

6. It would answer the “homegrown” argument used by those who want a system of local tests, but would maintain comparability across states and districts, which would not be possible if every locality went off on its own.

7. It could be done now.

No testing system will ever be perfect. But by addressing the concerns of both those who want all children held to the same high standards so that they can compete in a global economy, and those who rightly see serious deficiencies in the tests used by most states, we could move a significant step forward to a system that reflects a more diverse range of views, has a broader base of political support, and better serves students, teachers, and the nation.

A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Could ‘Open Source’ Testing Help Resolve the Testing Impasse?

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