Executive Perspective

A Return to Meaningful Assessment

by Daniel A. Domenech

In his book Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, Richard Rothstein puts forth a powerful argument suggesting we now evaluate our schools using test scores of basic skills alone. Consequently, the broader, richer goals of education have been cast aside in favor of improved scores in reading and math.

Rothstein’s argument is raised frequently by our system leaders and building-level administrators. The richer, more comprehensive curriculum that was the basis for much of our instruction has been sacrificed to meet adequate yearly progress.

Dan_Domenech.jpgDaniel A. Domenech


In a Punchback column Rothstein wrote for the February 2009 issue of The School Administrator titled “The Myopia of Testing Basic Skills Alone,” Rothstein writes that this emphasis on testing basic skills alone has not always been the case. He reminds us that in the early days of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the tests measured wide segments of the school curriculum and went significantly beyond the paper-and-pencil tests administered to students. The old NAEP included the observation of children under various conditions to gauge the affective as well as the cognitive domain and to assess such skills as the ability to cooperate and solve problems in a group setting. Even the ability to form opinions and to hold contrary points of view was assessed.

Presidential Support
Paper-and-pencil tests were used not only to assess academic achievement but to also assess character and citizenship traits. We have made significant progress in testing and measurement procedures, yet our accountability and assessment models now have a narrow focus on basic skills. Critical decisions are made affecting the lives of children based on results on a single written test, in spite of the warning from testing experts that basing such a decision on a single test is not valid.

We also compel some students to take tests in a language they do not understand and treat the results as if they were valid.
In a recent speech, President Obama stated, “I’m calling on our nation’s govern-ors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st-century skills like problem solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.”

We might assume from the statement that this administration is interested in moving away from the prevailing assessment practices and perhaps returning to the NAEP as it was originally designed. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could initiate the transition by suspending the existing rules and regulations that require the annual testing of all 2nd- to 8th-grade students in reading and math.

It is important to note there is no intention to circumvent accountability. System leaders embrace accountability and depend on assessments and the data it provides in order to make intelligent decisions. What we need to do is to separate assessment done for purposes of accountability from assessment done in order to diagnose the needs of students and inform the most effective instructional strategy for each child.

We have in place an excellent model to comply with the need for accountability. As currently constituted, NAEP assesses a sample of the student population. Not all children are tested and no child takes the whole test. The procedure is minimally intrusive, yet the results are valid and reliable.

The push for establishing national stand-ards comes from the embarrassing discovery that significant discrepancies exist in the performance of students on NAEP and on their state tests. The general assumption is that NAEP results are valid and the state results are inflated by either reduced cut points or easier tests.

Better Validity
To be sure, a state has the right to claim it can use a curriculum that differs from the one on which NAEP is based, thus contributing to a difference in results. If that’s the case, then we will never be able to adequately address accountability on a national level and truly assess the perform-ance of our children other than by the results on international tests.

NAEP can be restructured to become the instrument of accountability and to once again become the comprehensive assessment it was designed to be. This would obviate the need for state exams, resulting in the saving of millions of dollars and countless testing hours that would best be used for additional instruction for children.

At the classroom and school levels, assessment can revert to being a seamless component of the instructional process, with formative and authentic assessment practices helping teachers design the instructional strategies that will best suit the needs of the students.

Technological advances allow for online assessment processes that facilitate the grading and analysis of tests and the accumulation of data that can be used by teachers and administrators in the decision-making process. Psychometrists would agree that this assessment of students has much greater validity than one end-of-year paper-and-pencil test.

The president’s message is clear, and he has supported his words by providing unprecedented sums of money to establish assessment practices that better measure 21st-century skills. The National Assessment Governance Board and NAEP are existing structures that could be directed to take on the accountability role while schools return to what they do best, teach children.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org