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Tools for Critique: Chapter 7
Assessment: Measuring What Matters


Chapter 7,  “Assessment: Measuring What Matters,” describes the way educators measure student learning and explores the basic ideas that underlie these practices. The chapter begins by explaining a few basic assessment concepts and reviewing the history of testing, including the nineteenth and early twentieth century efforts to define and measure intelligence. It then discusses today’s standardized achievement tests—their construction, meaning, and uses in twenty-first century education. Finally, the chapter looks inside classrooms and offers a set of principles and practices that can help teachers use assessment to foster learning and social justice.

Chapter Headings

  • A Few Definitions
  • The History of Educational Testing
    • Testing in Early China
    • Testing in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Schools
    • The Development of Scientific Testing
  • Contemporary Large-Scale Assessment
      • Standardized Tests
      • Professional Guidelines for Using Large-Scale Standardized Tests
      • Alternatives to Traditional, Large-Scale Tests
      • The Quest for “Next Generation” Large-Scale Assessments
  • Contemporary Classroom-Based Assessment
    • Moving Beyond Traditional Classroom Assessments
    • Principles to Guide Authentic Assessment 
  • A Culture of Authenticity

Generative Questions and Activities

    Assessment: Measuring What Matters

  1. High school social studies teacher Judy Smith describes different assessments that she uses to inform her daily practice.  Are these similar to those with which you are most familiar?  Describe particular assessments that you experienced as aK-12student that you feel the teacher turned into immediate and useful help for your understanding.

  2. The authors state that, “Without [assessments] teachers cannot plan next month’s or tomorrow’s lessons or tailor those lessons to suit individual students…” How do these assessment purposes differ from the ways that high-stakes standardized tests are currently used in schools?  Do such tests serve any of the purposes named by the authors?  If so, which ones and in what ways?  If high stakes tests are not primarily used to support student learning, inform instruction, or monitor student progress, what purposes do they serve?

    A Few Definitions

  3. The authors describe the differences between traditional assessments and alternative assessments. What experiences have you had – as a student and/or as a teacher – with both types of assessment? What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of each form of assessment? Assuming that your school may likely require you to administer traditional assessments, what could you do in your classroom to incorporate more alternative assessments?

    The History of Educational Testing

  4. In discussing the forms of assessment that were used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the authors note: “All these forms of assessment relied heavily on behavioral theories of human learning.  Recitations and written tests were the ‘end’ of a transmission process in which knowledge began with the sender (teacher) and finished with the receiver (student).”  Based on your understanding of the sociocultural and cognitive theories of learning discussed in the previous chapter, is it accurate to assume that these newer theories are not widely accepted because actual practices don’t support them?   What are some alternate ways of explaining the mismatch between current learning theories and assessment practices? 

  5. The authors describe the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, which combined scientific concepts with racist beliefs in an attempt to “prove” that people of color were intellectually inferior to whites.  In your view, why was this racist pseudoscience so influential?  Why did school officials, policymakers, and the public unquestioningly accept the eugenicists’ basic premises?  What are some other historical instances, some mentioned by the authors, or others, when people have appealed to science in order to justify practices based on theories of racial superiority?  Do you see any contemporary remnants of these ideas? (Consider the overrepresentation of African American boys in special education classes, for example.)

    Contemporary Large-Scale Assessment

  6. According to the authors, the racist IQ tests of the early twentieth century have “spawned large-scale aptitude and achievement tests—the SAT, ACT, and a wide array of basic skills tests that are simply variations of the IQ tests themselves.”  The authors also note that these current tests “play an important role in rank ordering students and deciding what their future schooling opportunities will be.”  If theories of learning have evolved over the past century, why do you think these kinds of tests are still used to assess students?  Discuss whether or not you think this is problematic and explain why.

  7. Think about your own performance on norm-referenced standardized tests.  For example, how did you score on such tests in elementary and middle school?  How did you score on the SAT in high school?  Do you feel that your scores on these tests accurately reflected your intelligence?  Do you feel that your score on the SAT accurately reflected your aptitude for college?  Explain.

  8. Describe a time when a particular test or test score had a significant impact on your schooling and/or life experiences.

  9. Critics of norm-referenced standardized tests allege that such tests embody fundamental biases because they often measure students’ facility with the English language or other factors that do not reflect what students have learned in school.  Can you think of examples of specific ways that these tests might advantage students of particular backgrounds and disadvantage others?  What are some cultural practices that might give certain groups of people an advantage or disadvantage on standardized tests?  What practices, values, and experiences seem to be privileged by such tests?  Discuss how such biases might be related to the racist history of IQ testing.

  10. In large urban school systems, such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and increasingly in smaller school districts, many of the students who take norm-referenced standardized tests are English Learners and/or students who have lived in the United States for a short period of time.  Some critics argue that it is wrong to require English Learners to take a test in a language in which they lack full proficiency, and that their scores should not be compared with those of students whose primary language is English.  These critics also assert that attaching high stakes, such as additional funding, to norm-referenced tests only exacerbates language-related disparities, since it results in English Learners receiving fewer resources.  In your view, is it fair to make English Learners take the same test as English-dominant students?  What useful information can be gained from assessing English Learners in this way?  More to the point, is it fair to attach high stakes to the results of norm-referenced tests?  How might this lead to increases in language-related inequalities?

  11. The authors note that, “poverty and oppressive social conditions – factors that do vary according to race –  are significantly related to people’s performance on IQ and other standardized tests, but that is more reflective of those conditions than of test takers’ intelligence.”  These socioeconomic inequalities are also reflected in schools, since students of color in working-class communities often have unequal access to educational opportunities.  As the authors note in Chapter 1, working-class students of color disproportionately attend overcrowded schools with inadequate facilities, in which they have fewer qualified teachers and fewer adequate materials and supplies.  Given this unequal educational context, is it fair to attach high stakes to students’ scores on norm-referenced standardized tests?  Discuss whether or not you think that this punishes students who are already at a disadvantage.  As an example, consider California’s Academic Performance Index testing scheme, which sought to reward schools whose test scores improved by providing them with additional funding.  How might such testing schemes serve to perpetuate existing racial and class-based inequalities?

  12. The authors mention that the emphasis on standardized testing creates pressure for teachers and schools to focus narrowly on limited academic skills, which has resulted in many teachers using teacher-centered approaches to simply “teach to the test.”  Have you seen examples of this in schools?  What might be some of the negative consequences of this type of instruction?

  13. In addition to discussing norm-referenced tests, the authors also address standards-based tests, discussing the ways such tests are also “used increasingly to make decisions that have serious consequences for students and schools.”  One example of a high-stakes standards-based test is the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), which is currently being used to determine whether or not California high school students will receive a diploma.  Opponents of this exam argue that it unfairly penalizes students who did not have access to a quality education.  They assert that students should not be held accountable for learning if state and local officials are not held accountable for providing students with an adequate education.  Despite such critiques, tests like the CAHSEE are becoming increasingly common across the nation.  Is it fair to demand that students demonstrate mastery of content and skills that they have not had the opportunity to learn?  How might parents, students, and other interested parties begin to hold state and local school officials accountable for providing students with opportunities to learn?

  14. In keeping with the theme of the previous question, consider the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing set by the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education in 1999 (shown in Focal Point 7.1).  These standards clearly state that, “any decision about a student’s continued education, such as retention, tracking, or graduation, should not be based on the results of a single test, but should include other relevant and valid information.”  The authors note that, “although testing experts have universally endorsed these standards, they have not been effective in halting some of the harmful practices experts cite.”  Why, if testing experts clearly recommend the use of multiple measures for making important educational decisions, are high stakes still attached to the results of a single test?  If those who know the most about testing oppose attaching high stakes to a single assessment, who is supporting this practice?

  15. The authors contend that high-stakes testing has been imposed largely for political rather than educational reasons.  They also draw attention to the fact that the spread of test-driven, high-stakes policies has led to an outburst of criticism that almost equals the enthusiasm of such policies’ supporters.  These concerns are normative (beliefs, attitudes, and philosophies), political, and technical in nature.  Conduct some research about assessment measures and high-stakes testing.  Write a short paper supporting your position in support of or against high-stakes testing.  You may want to include the normative, political, and technical dimensions in your argument.

  16. Consider how the emphasis on standardized tests and the imposition of scripted curricula in many school districts nationwide might be informing teachers’ ideas about what assessment is and influencing their decisions about which assessments to use in their classrooms.  Based on your own experiences in schools, do you feel that teachers’ ideas about assessment are influenced by large-scale testing and scripted curricula?  Have you noticed teachers who rely heavily on unit and/or chapter tests in published textbooks?  How might large-scale tests impact the way in which teachers create “their own” assessments?

  17. Assessments are currently being designed to accompany the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and are scheduled for implementation in 2014-2015. The new assessments are supposed to include performance assessments, among other components. The authors state, “On the one hand, …  mandating formative assessments may support teachers to provide effective, targeted instruction. On the other hand, more extensive testing may sap crucial instructional time.” What do think about these two potential consequences of the new assessments? Do you have any predictions about what might happen? Do you foresee CCSS assessments as benefitting or harming classroom instruction? Explain.

    Contemporary Classroom-Based Assessment

  18. Tracing the history of educational testing, the authors note that “teachers have often focused their assessments on what they can observe after learning has taken place—whether students can recall what they have learned.” What might be some of the benefits of assessing students “at the moment of learning” instead of after learning has taken place?  Give an example of what this “moment-by-moment” learning and assessment might look.  What unique insights into students’ learning and into their own learning might this type of assessment afford teachers?  How might it inform their instruction in a more immediate way?

  19. The teachers in this chapter share examples of how they have used assessment to inform their instruction at different phases or stages of a given lesson or unit rather than only assessing students at the end.  Think of a lesson or unit that you have taught (or would like to teach).  Now brainstorm ways that you could incorporate various forms of assessment throughout the lesson/unit (i.e., assessing prior knowledge before the lesson/unit begins, conducting formative assessments to monitor students’ learning as the lesson/unit progresses, and then using summative assessments once the lesson/unit is finished) that tap into Tomlinson and McTighe’s Six Facets of Understanding (see Concept Table 7.3).  How could you combine these multiple measures to get a more detailed and complete picture of your students’ learning and understanding?

  20. Focus on a particular class in which you were recently enrolled.  How did the type of test or the overall assessment program of that class affect your study and learning?  Describe a “best example” of how an assessment helped you gain deep knowledge of a topic.  Describe a “worst example” of how an assessment seemed to discourage you from deep and thorough learning.

  21. Select a class with which you are familiar—one that you have recently taken or one in which you are now enrolled.  List several (try five) proposals or steps you could take to make the assessment more “authentic.”  For each proposal, note some likely resistance to the change: who would resist, why would they resist, and how would they explain or defend their resistance?

  22. The authors describe how interactive assessments can be used to guide teachers as they help, explain, and provide feedback for students.  What opportunities for interactive assessment are provided in the classes that you have observed?  How could more of these interactive assessments be built into instructional time?

  23. One way to conduct a formative assessment of students’ progress in a given area is to have students keep portfolios of their ongoing work.  This allows you to examine students’ progress over time, while also allowing students to monitor their own progress.  Have you used portfolios with your own students?  Have you seen them used?  If you were to begin implementing this type of formative assessment, what might be important to include in these portfolios?  Which work samples would it make most sense to include or exclude?  Why?
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