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Best Practices for State Assessment Systems, Part I: Summary of a Workshop
reforming assessments using conceptually rich tasks,
integrating 21st-century skills and academic content,
creating coherence between large-scale and classroom assessments, and
using data to improve classroom instruction.
For example, treating the first two bullets as distinct enterprises makes little sense, given that a large body of research indicates the importance of teaching content and higher-order thinking skills together. Shepard believes that policy makers do not completely understand that effective teaching relies on a model for how learning proceeds, in which cognitive skills and the knowledge of when and how to use them develop together with content knowledge and understanding of how to generalize from it. She cautioned that, without this theory of learning, policy makers are likely to accept current modes of assessment. They may believe, for example, that narrowing the curriculum is necessary because basic reading and mathematics skills are so important. They may not be aware that excessive drill on worksheets that resemble summative tests does not give students the opportunity to understand the context and purpose for what they are learning—which would enhance their skill development (see Elmore, 2003; Blanc et al., 2010; Bulkley et al., 2010; Olah, Lawrence, and Riggan, 2010). Similarly, although policy makers are in favor of data-driven decision making, Shepard believes, many educators lack the substantive expertise to interpret the available data and use it to make meaningful changes in their practice.
During the workshop discussions, many presenters drew attention to the churning that affects education policy because of shifts in political goals and personnel at the state level. Given that reality, coherence will have to come at a lower level, Shepard argued. The United States does not have a common curriculum, she suggested, because it has no tradition of relying on subject-matter experts in many decisions about education. Psychometricians and policy makers have typically taken the lead in the development of assessments, for example: subject-matter experts have generally been involved in some way, but are not usually asked to oversee the development of frameworks, item development, and the interpretation of results. Now, however, the interests of subject-matter experts and cognitive researchers who have been developing models of student learning within particular disciplines have converged, and this convergence offers the possibility of a coherence that could withstand the inevitable fluctuations in political interests. However, the practical application of this way of thinking about learning is not yet widely understood, Shepard observed. Thus, for Shepard, the opportunity of the present moment is to take the first steps in inventing and implementing the necessary innovations. It is not practical to expect that any one state or consortium could develop an ideal system for all grades and subject areas on the first try, so the focus should be on incremental improvements. She thinks that each consortium grant award should be focused on the development of a system of “next-generation, high-