Instructionally Supportive Accountability Tests

One of the four teams was asked to develop a system with a focus on the application of the 2001 recommendations of the Commission on Instructionally Supportive Assessments. That commission determined that a significant problem with most high-stakes tests is that they are expected to provide information on student mastery of exhaustive science standards—an expectation that is unreasonable and will lead to a variety of serious deficiencies in the assessment. In brief, the commission advocated that tests:

  • Measure students’ mastery of only a modest number of extraordinarily important curricular aims,

  • Describe what was to be assessed in language that is entirely accessible to teachers, and

  • Report results for every assessed curricular aim.

The design team chose to apply these three principles just in the context of the NSES standards for science-as-inquiry in physical science, which could serve as an example for the way it might be done for an entire set of science standards. With guidance from educators, physicists, and chemists, the team developed a set of strategies for implementing the commission’s recommendations. Their strategies were based on the assumption that states would use a 90- to 100-minute assessment once in each grade band to meet the NCLB requirements.

The team found that it could winnow the curricular aims in the NSES related to physical science considerably, and it organized them in a matrix of cognitive skills (such as identifying questions, designing and conducting an investigation, etc.) and significant concepts (such as forces and motion, forms of energy and energy transfer, etc.). The team recognized that some of the elements on the matrix would overlap with those for other science disciplines, such as life sciences, which would help streamline the ultimate results. Each cell in the matrix would include examples of test items or other assessment tactics that could measure the concepts and skills well, in addition to suggested instructional strategies.

While the interrelationships in the matrix helped the team reduce the total number of critical concepts, they were not able to winnow the set of critical concepts down to a number that could be assessed with reasonable accuracy using an annual test; since they were addressing only one aspect of one scientific discipline, a strategy for assessing the “genuinely irreducible” number of key concepts was needed.

The team’s solution was to recommend that the key concepts be rotated on an unpredictable basis, so that each would be eligible for inclusion on the assessment in any given year, though no single assessment would include all of them. In this way, teachers would continue to view all of them as important. The team recognized, however, that student progress toward mastery of the crucial concepts should be monitored in other ways as well, and included optional classroom



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