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The Nature of the Gap Some workshop participants quibbled with describing the problem at hand as a gap between two kinds of assessment that needs to be bridged, favoring instead the notion that systems need to be better balanced. Workshop discussion made clear that more than one kind of gap can be identified, and that achieving balance among different elements of an educational system is indeed an important and challenging goal. The gaps considered at the workshop include those between: large-scale and classroom assessments; formative assessments, designed to enhance learning, and summative assessments, designed to evaluate student performance; the goals of assessment for accountability and assessment for learning; the complexity of the science of large-scale assessment and the profes- sional development provided for teachers on the topic; the rich potential of classroom assessment strategies and the professional development and time available for teachers to take advantage of it; the curriculum dictated by state and district standards and the classroom preparation made necessary by external assessments; the data provided by many large-scale assessments and teachers' day-to- day needs for information about their students; the ambitious goals identified in most standards documents and the time available to address them in the classroom; the knowledge and skills identified in standards documents as important to master and the content that can be assessed using currently available large-scale instruments; 16
THE NATURE OF THE GAP . 17 the demands placed on teachers and teachers' available time and resources; and · the numbers and kinds of resources used to support external forms of assessment and those allocated for classroom formative assessment to assist learning. To begin with just one of these gaps, the pressure on teachers to prepare students for large-scale tests developed for accountability purposes can clearly be very great, yet such tests may not bear a close relationship to what is happening in any given classroom. When this happens there is often a large gap between the objectives teachers and administrators would naturally develop, and those dic- tated by the inherently circumscribed nature of the external test. Not only the objectives are at odds in this situation; there also can be, more broadly, a gap between the vast domain of skills, knowledge, and cognitive processes that have been identified as important for students to master and described in standards documents, and the far narrower sets of skills and knowledge that can be assessed using the instruments currently available. Focusing on this way of framing the problem, James Popham, a psychome- trician at the University of California, Los Angeles, and chair of the Commission on Instructionally Supportive Assessment empaneled by five major educational organizations,] described what he sees as the urgent need for state departments of education to limit and prioritize the goals they include in the standards and curricula. In his view, most such documents identify so many goals that meeting the desired standards would be literally impossible. Popham suggested that when a standards document fails to provide clear guidance as to what knowledge and skills are essential, the results are quite the reverse of what policy makers hope for. First, there are mismatches between what is taught and what is tested, Popham argued. Second, the material teachers have covered well tends to get eliminated from future tests because, since these tests are designed to spread students out across a range, items on which most kids succeed tend to get dropped from the pool. Thus the very material which teachers have presumably been most success- ful at teaching often gets eliminated from future tests. As teachers detect the absence of particular content from the test, they are likely to lessen their emphasis on it and turn to other material that is tested. Finally, Popham argued, because traditionally constructed achievement tests strive to create sufficient score-spread to permit accurate comparative interpretations to be made, many of the items that are included for the purpose of spreading students out are linked to students' 1 The American Association of School Administrators, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Education Association, and National Middle School Association.
18 ASSESSMENT IN SUPPORT OF INSTRUCTION AND LEARNING socioeconomic status or to students' inherited academic aptitudes. As a conse- quence, in such situations, it is impossible to tell whether students' test perfor- mance is the result of what they were taught at school or the result of character- istics they brought with them to school. One key to bridging the gap, suggested Popham, is to identify "a modest number of truly significant outcomes." These must be conceptualized in terms of how they might be taught, and identified as constructs that can be assessed in easily reportable ways. In addition, these objectives must be explained in terms that are very clear to teachers. At the same time, however, he argued that stan- dards should not be defined as they often are by default as those elements of the content that are easily assessed using existing instruments. The gap, said Popham, is perhaps best described as that between the goals of accountability and instruction, and it may be a symptom of the undisciplined way in which standards have often been developed at both the state and district levels. While Popham saw the gap in terms of the way standards are defined, it was clear that participants found numerous ways of defining it, and, as noted, few were comfortable with a single formulation. Indeed, elaboration of the possible sources and characteristics of the gap was a recurring theme, particularly in the question and answer sessions following many of the presentations. It was from some of these exchanges that the importance of paying attention to the particular circumstances in which each of the programs presented was developed became so evident. This point arose in the concluding session and will be discussed further in the last chapter.