Beyond the Classroom—System-Level Supports
This chapter speaks to people in decision-making and policy positions at the school, district, state and national levels. Parents and community members also may also be interested in this discussion about the broader system level.
Policies throughout the education system can have a profound influence on classroom practice. At the very least, enhanced assessment in the classroom requires consistent and compatible action from school, district, and state levels. Already stretched thin with the day-to-day teaching responsibilities, teachers need broad-based support and backing when it comes to improved assessment of student learning. Thus, change and support within the system needs to occur at many levels including higher education institutions, and it also must enlist the assistance of parents, other community members, and the public media.
There is no one best way to support teachers in their ongoing assessment and advancement of student learning. Changes should be consistent with, and supportive of, the vision for science education set forth in the Standards and the vision for classroom assessment set forth in this document. Change takes time; results cannot be expected overnight. Schools and districts need to provide a sustained focus for improved classroom assessment, rather than have it sit within the ever-shifting list of priorities that often come with changes in political parties and school leadership and administration. Here we will examine provisions that must be made at state, district, school, and community levels to enhance the types of classroom assessment recommended in this document.
DISTRICT AND STATE TESTING POLICIES
School-testing policies need to be reexamined and revamped to realize the goals for classroom assessment outlined in this volume. In terms of large-scale testing for program monitoring and accountability purposes, the Standards stress that “[A]ssessment policies and practices should be aligned with the goals, student expectations and curriculum frameworks” (NRC, 1996, p. 211). Designing quality assessments that assess the full range of science education is particularly important considering the significant impact “high-stakes” testing has on classroom teaching and assessment practice (Darling-Hammond, 1994; Gifford & O'Connor, 1992; Linn, 2000; Oakes, 1985,1990; Resnick & Resnick, 1991; Smith, Hounshell, Copolo, & Wilkerson, 1992).
Accountability is an important feature of our educational system, but the current models used for implementation of accountability policies are far from sufficient. Useful data often is generated at the expense of detrimental effects on classroom practice and student learning (Darling-Hammond, 1994; Gifford & O'Connor, 1992; Gipps, 1994; Goodlad, 1984; Smith et al., 1992). In particular, high-stakes external assessments often drive curriculum and classroom assessment practices (Frederiksen & Collins, 1989; Haney & Madaus, 1994; Linn, 2000; NRC, 1987).
External assessments should be criterion-referenced and aligned to the recommendations of standards, curriculum, and instruction. Not only will effective assessments match exemplary instructional practices, they also will assess what is important and valued, not solely what is easily and inexpensively measured. In science education, this includes assessing and supporting the development of inquiry as a key component of science education. To support the Standards' vision of quality science and to attend to inquiry will require that we reconsider ways in which to involve teachers in the large-scale assessment process.
One alternative solution may be for school districts to establish their own local standards-based accountability system in tandem with those of their state. Ideally, carefully designed tests would allow districts to develop and implement assessments in core curriculum areas, such as science, that match their learning goals, demonstrate student achievement of standards, inform instruction, guide professional development, and demonstrate program impact. Teachers can take a role in the development of these assessments. The assessment development situation in Delaware as described in Chapter 5 offers such an example at the state level. However, what works for a small state like Delaware may not be as feasible for larger states, especially where curricular decisions are
made at the district level. With such a system, district and state policy makers and the public may be provided with a picture of student and system performance that is both more valid and more reliable.
TEACHERS' VOICE IN EXTERNAL SCIENCE ASSESSMENTS
No one has as much information as the teacher does about student accomplishments and abilities. It is recognized that a teacher's daily presence in the classroom affords intimate knowledge of student achievement and learning that is valued highly and impossible to capture on a test. The challenge becomes one of tapping into this knowledge for purposes of reporting about the quality of student learning. We can look to districts, states and other countries that have made reforms in their assessment policies and practices for some examples of possibilities (see Chapter 4), as well as to learn from their successes and challenges.
Efforts to keep teachers from contributing to external assessments are often made on grounds that including them could undermine the assessment's reliability. Teacher deliberation is one possibility to help ensure consistency among different teachers. In moderation sessions, teachers exchange samples of student work and discuss their respective assessments of the work. The result of these sessions has proved to be effective in terms of developing common criteria for scoring (Wood, 1991). It also is valuable for the teacher's professional development, also noted in Chapter 5. The scoring of Advanced Placement examinations follows this model and serves as an example of how teachers can be more heavily involved in this type of assessment. However, productive sessions require careful planning and intensive preparation so that teachers come to achieve common standards and consistently and reliably use those standards to evaluate student work. In recent years, a Vermont initiative to involve teachers in the external evaluation of student portfolios ran into obstacles with teachers scoring inconsistently across raters, which resulted in differing summative judgments (Stecher & Herman, 1997).
DISTRICT AND SCHOOL LEVEL
In addition to general testing policies, responsibilities fall to district policy makers and school administrators to create structures that facilitate high-quality, classroom-based assessment. Professional development for teachers (Chapter 5), provisions of time during the school day, resources—both materials and people—are among the many steps necessary to help build the capacity of the system to make use of teacher knowledge to enhance student learning.
Teachers need opportunities to engage in assessment-related professional development with colleagues where they can reflect on their own teaching practice and that of others and discuss student work (see Chapter 5). Together, through collaboration and reflection, teachers can expand their assessment repertoires and understanding; and in turn, they can better support student learning through improved formative assessment in their own classrooms.
Teachers who acknowledge the importance of assessment, especially the potential of ongoing formative assessments, may feel constrained by numerous issues and tensions. In addition to the pressures levied by the external tests, constraints may include time, class size, resources, training, administrative support, and parental understanding and support.
In schools and districts implementing standards-based science programs, time is built into the school day and week for teachers to meet and work with their colleagues so that they can engage in meaningful discussions about student work and learning; discuss assessment strategies; and learn how to appropriately use data from student work, observations and other formative assessments to inform their practice. There also is time structured into the school day and week for teachers to meet and talk with students about their progress both individually as well as in groups and also to observe students as they work. Shared-preparation periods also offer teachers the opportunities for conversations to share reflections and connections about learning, teaching and assessment. Teachers frequently meet with school administration and support personnel to discuss and plan assessment strategies and to learn about current research that supports their ideas.
Unfortunately, this is not the reality experienced by most teachers. Many teachers are caught in a tension between trying to implement a standards-based program and the confines of a traditionally structured day. The fragmentation of their day and the pressures of bells, assigned yard and bus duties, parent meetings, and paper work, particularly for high school teachers, who may have 150 students per day or more, serve to focus their efforts on simply surviving day by day (Aschbacher, 1993). When time is scheduled for teachers to meet, it is usually reserved for short staff meetings scheduled at the end of the day, or folded into inservice days. Current research maintains that one of the key barriers to the implementation of new assessment practices in the classroom by teachers is the lack of time with professional colleagues to
discuss, learn, plan, practice, use and reflect (Aschbacher, 1993).
Just as time can influence the content selected for instruction and how it is taught, it also can influence the type, frequency and thoroughness of assessments. Carving out the time to engage in ongoing assessment of all students requires a shift in the conceptual understanding of the teaching process itself. Darling-Hammond and colleagues (1995) conducted case studies of five schools where teachers and students throughout the school were actively engaged in formative assessment. In describing the shifts in instruction that were supportive of improved classroom assessment, Darling-Hammond and her colleagues maintain that teachers moved from the role of instructors to that of facilitators. As facilitators, the teachers created learning opportunities for their students that encouraged students to engage in their own work. This provided teachers with the opportunity to observe students' work, to talk with them about what they were learning, and to use these observations to inform their teaching.
Regular time also needs to be provided during the school day for teachers to take part in professional growth activities, conduct research on their teaching practices, observe other classrooms, use available external resources, and attend professional meetings and conferences (NRC, 1996).
Although several states have recently implemented strategies to reduce the number of students assigned to classrooms at the primary and elementary levels, most middle and high school classrooms are still over-crowded. Additionally, with departmentalized courses in many middle and secondary schools, teachers often find themselves teaching 150 or more students per day. When faced with large numbers of students and other site obligations, teachers may have a difficult time maintaining continuous classroom assessments.
However, because assessment information is such a powerful tool for supporting student understanding and learning, even science teachers with large classes can find ways to incorporate multiple ongoing assessment strategies into their instructional activities. Student self-assessment, for example, is not only an essential tool for developing student self-directed learning, it also can provide a means for teachers with large classes to successfully incorporate ongoing assessment practices into their instruction. Through self-assessment, students are able to reflect on, internalize, and take responsibility for their own learning. With the teacher serving as consultant, students develop scoring rubrics and criteria to judge their own and their peers ' work.
When teachers treat students as serious learners and serve as coaches rather than judges, students come to understand and apply standards of good scientific practice (NRC, 1996).
For teachers to implement authentic and meaningful assessment activities in the classroom, they need access to resources within the school (materials, equipment, media and technology) and outside of the school (researchers, scientists, other specialists and community members). Teachers also need support from school and district administration, and understanding from parents about new assessment practices. School leaders must structure and sustain suitable support systems for the work that teachers do (NRC, 1996). Strong commitment from district administration to provide support for teachers can have a profound effect on the effectiveness of assessment reform (Aschbacher, 1993).
Teachers not only need administrative support to design and successfully implement ongoing assessments in their classrooms, they also need support from administration in helping parents to understand why their assessment practices might look different. Many parents may want their children to be taught and tested as they were in school —rote memory and standardized tests—and teachers must be supported and prepared to explain and justify why they are assessing children differently (Aschbacher, 1993).
Colleges and universities need to make classroom assessment an integral part of their teacher-education programs. Just as classroom teachers can gain tremendously from seeing and discussing exemplary practice, so too can preservice teachers. Currently, only 14 of the 50 U.S. states explicitly require competence in assessment as a condition to be licensed to teach. Only 3 of the 50 states demand competence in assessment to be licensed as a principal. There is not a single certification examination in use in any context or at any level in the United States today that verifies competence in classroom assessment for teachers or administrators (Stiggins, 1999). Therefore, colleges of education, who naturally prepare their graduates for certification in their state, see no need to offer the classroom-assessment training that teachers need to do their jobs. It has been this way for decades. This will not change until policy makers factor an expectation of assessment literacy into teacher and principal qualifications. Improving assessment so that it truly works in the service of learning calls for
research to be conducted at all levels—from the classroom to exploring the formative-summative link. University researchers also can serve as a resource for school districts and teachers. In both science content and teaching methods course work, faculty should model appropriate assessment strategies that support and promote learning.
COMMUNITY AND PARENTS
For a modified assessment system to succeed, all of the players need to be better informed about assessment issues and the desirable features of a contemporary science education program. Without an idea of what a quality science program, including quality assessment, looks like, one grounded in best classroom practice, decision making may not serve the best interests of students and learning. This is true for parents and community members as well as state-level policy makers. Parents need to be educated on the purposes and consequences of assessment practices. Likewise, a forum should be provided for them to voice their questions and concerns, especially in today's climate of increasing reliance on external, standardized tests. Parents will be faced with interpreting test results and perhaps influencing some assessment-relevant decisions, for example, the form for communicating student progress. Because parents are major consumers of assessment data, all those responsible for providing education to children—teachers, site-level and district-level administrators, and state-level policy makers —must take some of the responsibility for keeping them informed about assessment practices that are most likely to help their children learn.
TOWARD WHAT END?
The main points of this report to the National Science Education Standards (1996) are straightforward. Many of the assessment procedures the teacher employs, particularly those we call formative, can serve directly to enhance the students' learning in ways that are not possible with any other type of assessment tool. However, teachers need time and assistance in developing these procedures.
Furthermore, the student's understanding of a contemporary view of science cannot be assessed for summative purposes without substantive contributions from the student's own classroom teacher. To be complete, assessments that are used to certify what a person knows cannot be adequate without making use of what the teacher uniquely knows about the individual student. Only the teacher can know how a particular student pursues an investigation that may extend over several days or weeks. Only the teacher knows how a student
confronts and works through the inevitable challenges that arise. Only the teacher has the opportunity to probe beneath the one-word response to ascertain how deeply a student understands the concepts she is trying to teach.
Still, we must learn how to make teacher judgments trustworthy. Many other countries have reached this stage in their assessment systems, but such an outcome takes sustained work. For one thing, teachers need more time than they are usually afforded to work in collaboration with other teachers to hone their ability and consistency in judging student work (moderation). Furthermore, for the necessary levels of public confidence and trust in the process to develop, the procedures devised and employed when the teachers' role in summative judgments is increased must be made transparent. School administrators and policy makers, as well as teachers themselves, have a responsibility to keep the public informed.
But these goals, even in the ideal, do not lead to elimination of all external tests (standardized or not) or other forms of accountability that are not based as much on teachers' direct knowledge of the student. Rather, a way must be found of combining and maintaining consistency between the results of external tests and those of well-informed and moderated teacher judgments. Above all, the total assessment system must be complementary, with each part supporting the other, with each providing distinctive information, and with all parts aligned with the development of higher standards.