Smart Tests

A new approach to assessment helps teachers understand the ways young children think and grow

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When Mary Ann Cockman asks her kindergarten pupils to draw self-portraits at the start of the school year, they often sketch a large head, two eyes, and a stick for a body. When she asks them to do the same thing later in the year, their renderings become more detailed, acquiring ears, mouth, lips, lipstick, eyebrows, eyelashes, fingers, shoes, rectangular legs—even designs on their clothing.

Cockman, who teaches at Thomson Elementary School in Davidson, Mich., says the student portfolios she now collects to document such progress—as well as the detailed checklists and written evaluations she prepares several times a year on each child—have helped her become more attuned to the ways young children think and grow. “You learn to look at children differently,” she says.

Thomson Elementary is one of 37 schools nationwide piloting a system of assessment designed to provide an alternative to standardized tests and traditional report cards in the early grades. The approach, known as the “Work Sampling System,” was developed by Samuel Meisels, a professor of education and an associate dean for research at the University of Michigan.

Meisels is one among many experts who argue that traditional standardized tests are unreliable for young children and have been used inappropriately to delay school entry, retain large numbers of students, and justify rote-skill instruction. Meisels’ goal is to replace group-administered achievement testing with teacher focused performance assessment. Such a change, he says, would improve both teaching practices and children’s experiences in the early grades.

Teachers using the Work Sampling System complete a detailed checklist three times a year tracking children’s performance in seven domains: personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social and cultural awareness, art and music, and physical development. They also collect samples of children’s work in each domain, including tasks asked of all children and individual items that vary by child.

Then, using the checklists, portfolios, and other observations, the teachers complete a “summary report,” or student profile, evaluating a child’s performance, strengths, and difficulties in each domain. These reports, which are also prepared three times a year, are designed to serve as a basis for communicating with other teachers, parents, and administrators and for planning student instruction.

Initial studies to determine whether outside experts would rate children the same way their classroom teachers do based on the portfolios and checklists have shown “extremely high” reliability, according to Meisels. And a study designed to gauge the validity of the assessment compared with an individually administered norm-referenced standardized test, he says, also produced promising results.

Still, Meisels cautions that the Work Sampling System should not be used as a “gatekeeping device” for school entry or promotion. And while data derived from the system could be used to compare the performance of classrooms or large groups, he says, its chief purpose is to assess individual children’s progress over time, gauge achievement against curriculum goals, and tailor instruction to children’s needs.

Lorrie Shepard, a professor of education at the University of Colorado and author of studies on the adverse effects of retention in the early grades, says the biggest danger in introducing alternative early childhood assessments occurs “when people take a measure designed for one purpose and retrofit it for another.” Much more experimentation and fieldwork in the higher grades are needed, she maintains, to reliably use such data to rate the quality of teachers and schools. “The kinds of preliminary data we’ve seen are sufficient to justify classroom uses of these assessments,” she says, “but would not be sufficient for external accountability purposes.”

Such assessments are perhaps most useful in helping teachers learn more about child development. JoAnne Lowe, a kindergarten teacher at Copeland Elementary, a pilot school in Dexter, Mich., says the Work Sampling System has helped her become a better observer of the whole gamut of children’s needs—including their physical growth and personal and social development—and has “made me aware of areas I wasn’t strong at.”

“One of the best things about it is that children do not fail,” says Janice Brown, principal of Kettering Elementary in Willow Run, Mich., another participating school. “What you are measuring a child against is him- or herself, not a false presumption like a grade or test. If no growth is evident, then we can look at it and look at how we are going to change our system.”

One drawback, teachers say, is that the system is very time-consuming. But, they add, parents like the detailed feedback this kind of assessment gives them, and it buoys children’s self-esteem. “Kids, by the end of the year, are able to look at their portfolio and see their own growth,” says Penny Butler, a kindergarten teacher at Garfield Elementary School in Flint, Mich.

While they applaud the level of training and technical assistance provided by Meisels and his colleagues, some educators still predict it will take a few years for them to become comfortable using the system. And Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner notes that it also will take time to “develop canons of looking and listening”—like those established to rate performance in other fields—that policymakers would consider acceptable for accountability purposes.

Says Principal Janice Brown: “One of the hard questions educators have to answer is: Are we interested in knowing how children compare with one another, or are we interested in knowing how much children are learning? If we have decided we are more interested in knowing how much children are learning, we must do something like this.”

Vol. 04, Issue 06, Pages 20-21

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