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"Without Good Assessment Standards Will Fail,"

by Monty Neill September/October 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

In the discussion about standards in education, the various authors have correctly observed that high-quality standards can be valuable for improving education for all students. They are equally correct in warning that the standards movement may fail due to inadequate support for education (lack of funding, prepared teachers, decent schools and books), the misuse of standards and testing (tracking and grade retention) or low-quality standards (more facts but not thinking. Eurocentricism).

To a great extent, the effectiveness of standards also will depend on the quality of the assessments states and districts use to measure student progress. The parts of the standards schools will focus on the most — the real standards — will be those parts that are measured by a test or other assessment tool. Thus, schools that rely on narrow tests will likely neglect significant components of the standards.

Students should learn to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, create and apply knowledge — to think — in each subject, and they should be assessed to see if they have learned to do so. By these lights, people in most states should not be confident that the real standards will be high-quality. FairTest recently released a detailed study, Testing Our Children, which concludes that most states have very low-level testing programs. Only seven states have adequate programs, and most of those are not really good enough. (The evaluation was based on the National Forum on Assessment's Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems, which 80 civil rights and education organizations have signed.) Meanwhile, most districts rely on norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests which completely fail to assess the ability to think and use knowledge.

Since schools and districts often teach to the test, many students will not be taught to the broader standards, but to the narrow, low-level version in the tests. Children of color and those from low-income families are far more likely to be taught a low-level curriculum by drill and kill methods focused on standardized tests. Outside of Kentucky, the South relies most heavily on multiple-choice tests, and big cities use such tests more than other areas.

Standardized testing also tends to impose a standardized curriculum. If that means all students are helped to a high-quality education, fine. But it is likely instead to negate the great diversity of our nation in order to impose a one-size-fits-all schooling. The Principles call for assessment practices which "allow students multiple ways to demonstrate their learning" and "recognize and incorporate the variety of cultural backgrounds of students who are assessed... [and] the variety of different student learning styles." Almost all large-scale assessments fail to meet these principles and therefore do not help schools to meet the learning needs of all their students.

Assessment reform is not a panacea and will not by itself fix the deep problems of U.S. education. But education reform without assessment reform will not succeed. Most of the needed changes in assessment will have to take place in the classroom, which in turn will require substantial professional development. These, in turn, should be part of comprehensive changes aimed at making each school a supportive community of learners. To encourage these changes, to ensure that assessment really does support important learning, state and district assessment must also change fundamentally.

The promise of standards is that they will be used to improve education for all students. Unless states are willing to create much better assessments (among other necessary improvements), that promise will once again be broken. Rich kids will still learn to use knowledge to think and solve problems, while poor kids will learn to pass basic skills tests, thereby reproducing our society's class and race inequities.
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