testingChristy Bosch, curriculum coordinator at Ohio’s Logan-Hocking School District, is in charge of creating a course of study that will not only best educate the students of that district, but will also enable them to succeed on Ohio’s Graduation Proficiency Test. The test—a recent upgrade from the Ninth Grade Proficiency Test used for the last half decade—will go into effect for the class of 2004.

In Ohio and many other states, what the test means for the students is fairly simple (if a little stressful): if they pass it, they’re able to graduate; if they don’t pass it, they don’t. Bosch has high hopes for her district, but she also has her work cut out for her.

The Logan-Hocking School District, which serves most of Hocking County, located in Appalachian southeast Ohio, is currently scoring around 11 out of 27 on the state’s assessment scale—enough to keep them out of “academic emergency” (a predicament that some 69 Ohio districts are in), but just barely. Their status is currently classified as “academic watch,” which approximates a sort of probation, and a status they share with 131 of Ohio’s 611 school districts. A number of suburban districts in and around Columbus, an hour to the northwest of Logan, have scored a 26 or above and achieved a rating of “effective,” which they share with only 31 Ohio districts.

“There’s no question that the socioeconomic status of an area plays a major role in testing success,” Bosch says. But, she adds, “I anticipate an improvement in our scores over the next five years.”

That improvement will, at least in part, result from curricular changes made to accommodate the test.

“What the kids are assessed on is the stuff that ought to be taught.”

A Welcome Watchdog?
Built-in to the testing procedure is the use of test scores as a means of assessing the effectiveness of school systems. In the case of Ohio, the proficiency test is now the primary means by which the state keeps a watchful eye on the progress—and sometimes failure—of its districts, determining, in essence, if the folks in its employ are doing their jobs in educating the children of their region. Based on what they find, the state has legal authority to take over, close, or replace the staff in a given district.

Predictably, some educators are wary of this sort of presence. Logan-Hocking’s Bosch, though, says that the scrutiny they’ve undergone as a result of the test has brought about a number of positive changes. “We’ve found gaps and overlaps in the curriculum, and we’re making adjustments accordingly,” she says. “We’re looking closely at what we’re teaching and we understand the importance of being accountable for that.”

She adds, “what the kids are assessed on is the stuff that ought to be taught.” Many opponents of proficiency testing, however, suggest that teaching to the test is a problem in and of itself.

All Those Against…
The litany of complaints against assessment, in fact, is substantial. In addition to concerns about accentuating already obvious discrepancies between richer and poorer districts, opponents of “high-stakes testing” claim that a child—or a school system, for that matter—cannot be reduced to and evaluated by a single score.

Dr. Robert L. Linn, distinguished professor at the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has writes in Educational Researcher that assessment is a cop-out on real reform. “Tests and assessments are relatively inexpensive,” he writes. “Compared to changes that involve increasing instructional time, reducing class size, attracting more able people to teaching, hiring teacher aides, or implementing programmatic changes that involve substantial professional development for teachers, assessment is cheap.”

Marion Brady, an educational consultant in Florida, writes in Phi Delta Kappan that the standards movement has brought with it the idea that students “should be taught what those of us who are educated know.” This notion, says Brady, misses the real importance of educating people who will inhabit a world different from our own. Brady argues that a more responsible approach to testing and curriculum development would be to move away from multiple-choice, bubble-in tests that assess basic knowledge about mathematics or history, and toward an education of broad categories, that examined, for instance, the inner-workings of “systems.”

“The processes of human development in general, and learning in particular, are all manifestations of brain function.”

The Brain and Assessment
The state of Ohio, in fact, is making concerted efforts to move in this direction. It is attempting to implement “performance-based” assessments on its fourth and sixth grade tests—that is, assessments that gauges things like critical thinking and the processes involved in solving math problems, as opposed to just checking the final answer.

“We’re making it so that students can demonstrate knowledge any way they can represent it on paper—whether by graphs or drawings or anything else,” says Patty Grey, director of communications for the Ohio Department of Education.

This is one response to the advances of brain science, and others may be in the works—particularly in Ohio. According to Grey, Ohio’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Susan Tave Zellman, is an ardent supporter of implementing the latest brain research into the curriculum. “Dr. Zellman believes very strongly that the latest research is providing valuable insight into how people learn,” says Grey. “Because of this research, we have an absolute belief that every child can learn, and we are striving to make that possible, attempting to both teach and assess in multiple ways.”

Others are more guarded about brain research advances. One is Dr. Lorie Shepard, an education researcher and colleague of Linn’s at the University of Colorado’s School of Education, and former president of the 23,000 member American Educational Research Association,. “My own views,” she says, “are like those of several eminent cognitive psychologists, who have concluded that brain research is critically important for the future but cannot be expected to have immediate implications for classroom practice.”

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, dean of the Heller Graduate School at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and chairman of the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, concurs—particularly where assessment is concerned. “First,” he says, “the processes of human development in general, and learning in particular, are all manifestations of brain function. Second, the assessment of development (and learning) is a complex and challenging enterprise. Third, any attempt to use research on brain development for assessing children in education settings at the present time is completely unwarranted.”

Shepards’s overall view of the current state of assessment probably most closely represents the general mixture of discontent and optimism. “Assessment in classrooms,” she says, “is most likely to be effective if it supports learning and effective teaching.” A recent report from the National Research Council entitled How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, says Shepard, is a good guide for implementing assessment that fosters learning and effective teaching.

However, Shepard cautions, “the current state-administered, high-stakes accountability systems bear little resemblance to effective assessment practices at the classroom level.”

Brady, Marion. “The Standards Juggernaut,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 2000, v 81, n 9, pages 648-651.

Linn, Robert L. “Assessments and Accountability,” Educational Researcher, March 2000, v 29, n2, pages 4-14.