Special Report
Assessment

Test Experts Wary on ‘Race to Top’ Rules

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 08, 2009 4 min read

While the U.S. Department of Education finalizes its rules for doling out $4 billion to states in the Race to the Top competition, a group of prominent testing experts is cautioning federal education officials on how they propose to use assessments to measure student achievement and teacher-quality improvements under the initiative.

The Board on Testing and Assessment, a part of the National Research Council, wrote in an Oct. 5 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that he and the department should “pursue vigorously the use of multiple indicators of what students know and can do,” in the Race to the Top competition, part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act approved by Congress earlier this year.

The 13-member Board on Testing and Assessment, which is part of the National Academies, said it could not meet the Education Department’s Aug. 28 deadline to comment on the department’s proposed regulations for Race to the Top because of the academies’ requirement that any public document must be reviewed by an independent group of experts before it can be released.

Nonetheless, the board proceeded with its review of the draft rules because “it was too important an opportunity” to weigh in on the massive federal investment in public schools, said Edward H. Haertel, the chairman of the testing panel.

In an e-mail to Education Week, Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton wrote that the department welcomes “vigorous evaluations” of the Race to the Top program. “The best impact that [the program] can have is if we create a road map for reforms into the future that have solid research behind them.”

Evaluation Concerns

Race to the Top is one of two high-profile discretionary grant programs that are part of up to $100 billion in education aid under the economic-stimulus program.

Last week, the department proposed ground rules for the other program, the $650 million Investing in Innovation, or i3, fund. (“Proposal Sets Out ‘i3' Rules,” this issue.)

In its letter, the testing experts warned against using a single test, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress to measure growth in student achievement, and also suggested that the department’s plans to use student growth data to evaluate teachers could be premature.

In its draft regulations, the department proposed using NAEP to “monitor” overall increases in student achievement, as well as progress in closing achievement gaps, saying that the test “provides a way to report consistently across Race to the Top grantees as well as within a state over time.”

But Mr. Haertel said in an interview that while NAEP would be one good way to monitor the various strategies funded by the Race to the Top program, the national exam should not be used as a way to do objective evaluations of those same initiatives.

“Part of this is the respect that we have for the value of the NAEP as a low-stakes auditing tool,” said Mr. Haertel, an education professor at Stanford University. “We don’t need one more high-stakes test to drive curriculum and instruction nearly as badly as we need the long-term trend lines that we get with the NAEP.”

If high-stakes decisions were to be attached to NAEP results, he warned, it could become “just another test that people would start teaching to.”

In its letter to Secretary Duncan, the board also pointed out that only students in grades 4, 8, and 12 take NAEP, and do so every other year. The test, the letter says, is not aligned with any states’ academic content standards or curricula, and consequently would not “fully reflect improvement taking place at the state level.”

In addition, Mr. Haertel and his colleagues raised numerous concerns about the department’s plans to use individual students’ progress over the course of each academic year, the so-called value-added model, as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers. While they expressed support for linking teachers and their students’ test scores for the purposes of research, they said it would be “premature” to use the value-added approach in decisions on actions such as firing teachers or rewarding them. Too little is known about the accuracy of such methods, the board members said. The board also pointed out practical difficulties in using data to judge teachers.

The board also weighed in on the department’s proposed requirement that school districts use data to improve instruction on a constant basis. It cautioned that multiple-choice assessments that can be graded rapidly are not the best tools for figuring out how to tweak what teachers do in the classroom.

Mr. Haertel said that using tests that can be graded within 72 hours “bumps up against the concern that many of us have about using assessments that really measure the full range of knowledge and skills that we want children to acquire.

“What we really need are forms of assessment that require children to construct their own answers and not just select answers from prefabricated choices,” Mr. Haertel said. “But those can’t be graded in a fast fashion. This is a case of where the hopes and dreams of policymakers are getting ahead of realities.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as Testing Experts Cautious on ‘Race to Top’ Rules

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