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An alternative to standardized testing for student assessment


Standardized tests have dominated the school reform discussion for years, with students scores used —  often unfairly —  to judge the kids as well as their schools, teachers, principals, districts and even states.  Here, Monty Neill, executive director of the non-profit National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, explains how student assessment can be done without standardized test scores.

By Monty Neill

Assessment reformers are often challenged, “What would you do instead of standardized testing?” While stopping the damage wrought by test misuse and overuse is necessary in its own right, high-quality assessment is essential to student learning. Sadly, No Child Left Behind killed many innovative practices as schools were forced to focus on boosting standardized exam scores. However, a number of excellent examples of better assessments exist in the United States and other nations.

One top-notch alternative is conducted by the New York Performance Standards Consortium, an alliance of 28 public high schools. Schools in the Consortium use performance-based assessments in place of standardized exams, except the English Language Arts test. The performance assessments are used for graduation and accountability, including NCLB.

A recent consortium report, Education for the 21st Century, shows that performance-based assessment works well for the types of students that test-driven “reforms” are supposed to benefit but so often fail. The student population of the consortium’s 26 public schools located in New York City mirrors the city’s student body. They have nearly identical shares of blacks, Latinos, English language learners and students with disabilities. However, the consortium dropout rate is half that of New York City public schools. Graduation rates for all categories of students are higher than for the rest of New York City, while consortium rates for English Language Learners and students with disabilities are nearly double the city’s.

In 2011, 86% of African American and 90% of Latino male graduates of Consortium schools were accepted to college. National averages are only 37% and 43%, respectively. Ninety-three percent of consortium grads remain enrolled in four-year colleges after the first two years, compared with an average of 81% nationally. Yet, consortium students are far more likely to be low-income than the U.S. average. Consortium schools also have far lower rates of student suspension, but far higher rates of teacher retention, compared with other New York City schools, including charters.

Consortium schools focus on project-based learning. All consortium programs require students to successfully complete four performance-based assessment tasks (PBATs). These include an analytic essay, a social studies research paper, a science experiment, and an applied mathematics problem. They incorporate both written and oral components.

Education for the 21st Century explains that the PBATs “emerge from class readings and discussion. In some classes, the tasks are crafted by the teacher and in other instances by the student.” For example, in literature each student must write and then orally defend an analytic paper based on defined requirements. The report includes samples of the wide range of literature and interests addressed by the students, as well as similar samples for the other required tasks. In the oral defense for each PBAT, the student responds to questions from a panel of teachers and outside experts.

The report includes the scoring guides (“rubrics”) used to evaluate the tasks and defenses completed for the common graduation requirement. (Many consortium schools also use a range of other performance assessments and portfolios to document student progress.) Samples of the work are independently re-scored (“moderation”) to assure scoring is consistent and based on high standards.

No other nation tests as much as the United States. Finnish students, for example, outperform the world. Their schools have well-trained teachers who have autonomy to address their students’ learning needs — and no high-stakes testing! In other nations as well, performance assessments are common.

The United States can and must change. This will require developing high-quality assessment systems that can be used with other evidence to evaluate students, teachers and schools and to improve teaching and learning. The experience of the New York Performance Standards Consortium is one valuable model.

• See also the Webinar on Performance Assessment, sponsored by the Forum on Educational Accountability. It features Ann Cook of the Consortium, Sally Thomas of the Learning Record, and Monty Neill from FairTest.