Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Big Wheel Keeps on Turning

This just in, from Frank Brockmann, Center Point empresario and fellow quality crusader:

President Barack Obama announced last week that 10 states will be exempt from the requirements of the highly-criticized No Child Left Behind legislation. In exchange, those states will have to agree to a series of reforms. But some experts say the law should be scrapped completely for models that don't rely on standardized tests.

Interesting, because last night I was reading about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire California Learning Assessment System. CLAS was not the first--and surely will not be the last--testing program to be felled by public controversy. Among the many objections to CLAS were to the reading passages (two of Alice Walker's stories were excised after complaints that "Am I Blue" promoted vegetarianism, and "Roselily"was anti-religion), to the writing prompts (which were considered invasive), and to the test questions themselves (too subjective and based in emotion, according to critics).

When I began my career in hand-scoring, CLAS was one of my first projects, so I did at one time have more than a passing familiarity with the tests and how students responded to them. In general, I liked the questions (what did I know? I hadn't any content development experience at that point), although scoring did present a problem.

In some parts of the test, students were encouraged to take notes--which were called "marginalia"-- and for some questions, were offered various options as to how to respond: they could draw a picture, for example. Anyone who's ever been presented with a drawing by a small child understands the obstacle in scoring there:

You: Oh, what a lovely dinosaur.
Child: It's not a dinosaur.
You: No?
Child: No.
You: What is it, love?
Child: It's a manatee.
You: Oh, yes, of course it is.

I see what the developers and supporters of CLAS were attempting to accomplish, and the goal is a laudable one: to lure students into engaging with authentic literature and then to welcome their genuine, individual responses to what they read. However, in retrospect, these goals might be more readily achieved at the classroom level, through both instruction and formative assessment (and by "formative assessment," I really mean all those teacherly techniques for paying attention to one's students, not the administration of a series of badly-written multiple-choice quizzes), than through a standardized testing program.

The point is really to define clearly one's purpose, and then create the assessment that will best serve that purpose, as "the man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder," in the immortal words of Thomas Carlyle.

Big wheel keeps on turning. We went from bubble-in to performance assessment, back to bubble-in, and now we're talking about performance assessment as if it were the hot new thing, never before attempted.

Not that we shouldn't move in that direction--I like that direction very much--but if we do, there should be a moment of planning and taking stock (For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?), a gathering of the elders for the harvest of wise counsel, before there is a marshaling of forces. What is our purpose? What will we gain, what will we lose, is the loss worth the gain? How do we prepare teachers for this role?

What do you think?

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