California Education Dialogue

A public policy dialogue produced by Information Renaissance
with support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation,
IBM Corporation and Intel Corporation

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Emerging Modes of Delivery, Certification and Planning

Section III


The number of standardized tests being used to assess student learning in California’s public schools is increasing rapidly. Moreover, the surge in student testing is likely to continue unabated for the foreseeable future. President Bush’s agenda for reforming the public schools, known popularly as “Leave No Child Behind,” will require California to annually administer more standardized tests, at more grade levels grades, in more subject areas than ever before. If the increase in state and federal assessment activities is to be useful in informing the design of educational programs intended to improve student learning, their results must be made available to teachers, students, and parents on a timely basis. Such is not the situation today.

In many instances, the time lag between administration of a standardized test and release of the results is greater than six months. Few teachers ever get back test results on their students early enough to modify their teaching strategies. This delay, particularly in light of the availability of relatively inexpensive networked database technologies, is inexplicable. Today, standardized tests are auditing devices, not instruments of educational practice and improvement.

The problems afflicting standardized testing programs stem not only from the tardiness of their results, but also from their design. Many tests continue to focus on those aspects of knowledge that can be captured in the multiple-choice format. The National Research Council’s Committee on the Foundations of Assessment has recommended that the current generation of standardized tests be abandoned. The Committee recommends that the next generation of these tests provide the information needed by teachers to track the learning progress of their students at a higher level of detail than is currently provided by today’s assessment instruments. Such detailed information would allow teachers to give their students information and guidance on what they need to do to improve their academic performance. The Committee also argued that such assessment instruments would better serve the paired goals of educational equity and excellence.

Three trends show promise of being able to significantly improve current assessment practices. The first is new research on cognition and learning, particularly findings on the critical role timely feedback plays in fostering productive learning. The second is development of computer-mediated instructional materials that incorporate sophisticated embedded assessment capabilities, and the findings that these capabilities foster adaptive learning activities. The third trend is the emerging generation of distributed database technologies, which can used to gather, analyze, sort, and disseminate assessment results quickly.

The Working Group agrees with the findings and recommendations of the National Research Council. It is therefore recommended that the State take action to make its assessment programs more flexible, accessible, and responsive.

  • A more flexible assessment system would permit teachers to receive timely customized reports, illuminating the learning performance, trends, and unique needs of their students. A more flexible system would also make similar information available to students and their parents, in easy-to-use formats they can jointly use to improve student learning.

  • A more accessible assessment system would take into account the diverse range of students attending the public schools, including English language learners, students with disabilities, and students with other special needs. Many of these students are ill-served by current assessment practices.

  • A more responsive assessment system would tie information on student learning performance more closely to the subject matter standards adopted by the California State Board of Education. This combination of performance and curriculum information would help students better prepare themselves for college and other postsecondary educational opportunities. It would also provide postsecondary education institutions baseline information on the relationship between the content standards and the academic performance of entry-level students.

Collectively, these changes would produce assessment policies and practices that would be more student-focused, learning centered, and supportive of school improvement.


Quality and Accountability

  1. Institutions should assess and document instructional innovations, outcomes, and achievement.

    Commentary: Practice-oriented research and documentation can serve as valuable tools and can support decisions to continue or discontinue current practices. This information may also be used as a basis for allocating funding and/or State incentives. Schools often are not provided with specific resources for this activity, but it should be a priority. A priority should also be placed on disseminating ‘best practices’ for potential replication.

  2. The State and local education agencies should assure that accountability expectations and measures for assessment and testing are made public and understandable for all participants in the system. Any assessment used for ‘high-stakes’ decisions and consequences should have measurement validity and reliability, and should reflect the level at which knowledge and skills are gained from appropriate instruction.

    High-stakes testing impacts learners by driving decisions that have important consequences for each student’s future: promotion, retention, graduation, diploma awards, and possible postsecondary placements. State and local education agencies should ensure that any examination used for high-stakes consequences for individual students actually measures what it is intended to measure for all students. The State must therefore ensure that all students have equal access to the core curriculum, regardless of the location of the school district or school, and that the core curriculum is accurately reflected in the test content. When tests are used in making educational decisions for individual students, they should accurately measure the student’s abilities, knowledge, skills, or needs in ways that do not discriminate or violate federal law on the basis of the student’s race, national origin, gender, or disability.

    The following principles, which embody research recommendations and ‘best practices’ developed by the National Research Council, CRESST, and the National Academy of Sciences Board on Testing and Assessment should apply to any testing that has consequences for individual students, institutions, or systems:

    There is a fine line between using multiple test and assessment measures to make sound educational decisions for students and over-testing learners to meet accountability requirements.
    • If tests are claimed to measure content and performance standards, analyses should document the relationship between the items and specific standards or sets of standards. To the extent possible, language assessments should be used to measure academic performance against standards, and English assessments to measure growth in English proficiency.

    • The validity of measures that have been administered as part of an accountability system should be evaluated and documented for the various purposes of the system.

    • Evidence of test validity for students with different language backgrounds should be made available publicly.

    • Speakers of languages other than English should have appropriate assessments based on language and English proficiency.

    • Standards set for passing or passing at different levels of proficiency should be made clear. In particular, the justification for different ‘cut scores’ should be made on the basis of validity evidence.

  3. The State should encourage schools and postsecondary institutions to use test results from one set of instruments in multiple ways to avoid over-testing learners, although high stakes decisions about student placement and promotion should not be made on the basis of a single test.

    Commentary: Students are required to take a multitude of assessments, many of which cover the same subject matter, thereby making more sense to combine assessments than to duplicate items. Especially with the passage of the new federal Leave No Child Behind (the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act), the State risks turning schools in to assessment centers. The State must be careful to develop assessments and tests that are robust and not duplicative. To support innovative non-duplicative results, the State should encourage establishment of a cross-segmental forum for sharing effective practices and ensuring assessment and testing alignment.

    A combination of measures should be used to assess students, including:

    • Standardized achievement instruments, such as SAT 9 or SABE II.

    • Standards-based proficiency tasks based on academic standards.

    • English proficiency assessments for English learners.

    • Teacher assessment, such as report cards and classroom measures.

Coordination, Cooperation, and Planning

  1. The State should encourage creation, by 2005, of a digital learning portfolio for each learner that would allow the student to move through a variety of coordinated delivery systems, regardless of the provider.

    Coordinated information systems would provide students easy access to their own academic records.
    Commentary: Assessment addresses both the needs for initially placing students in appropriate programs and measuring growth and success in meeting standards-based programs. As policy-makers and learners are evaluating their investment in education, it is time to use technology to facilitate and enhance the assessment process. Technology provides an important tool for meeting the accountability requirements in state and federal law when teachers and administrators measure student learning, modify instructional services and strategies to meet learner needs, and help learners take control over their own educational experience. With a coordinated data collection system among the education segments, learners can move within a seamless coordinated delivery system of services to meet their education needs.

    California’s adult continuing education system includes technology in its assessment and accountability systems. However, its current data collected on adult continuing education students is incorporated into unique software systems that unfortunately do not ‘talk’ to each other. One data collection system specifically responds to the data elements required for the federal funding available from the Workforce Investment Act, Title II; some, but not all, of the data points in the other predominant data systems correspond to the items collected for federal reporting requirements. Collaborative efforts need to focus on standards for common data collection elements, a data dictionary with a common definitions of terms, and processes to share the information generated among agencies; these collaborative efforts would result in an ability to define the needs of current populations as well as forecast future populations and needs.

    Member comments: Student confidentiality must be assured and protected. Parent and student access is essential to assuring quality control in individual digital learning portfolios.
Contents Summary Background I. Delivery
II. Organization III. Assessment IV. Certification V. Planning
VI. Adult Ed. Conclusion Presenters Members