The Perils and Benefits of Assessment
A few remarks on assessment are necessary not only because I alluded to this critical topic in my editorial in the previous issue of the Annals (Summer 2011), but because there is an invited article on it by Stephanie Cawthon in the present issue. To some, assessment is a necessary evil, offering both perils and benefits. Others might have synonymous names for this term that cannot put in print. A few of the folks in this latter group think we need to eliminate aspects of this activity altogether—particularly the idea that we can develop a standardized test that is reliable, valid, and applicable to all children, regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, and so on.
There are a few terms associated with the construct of assessment that seem to strike fear in the hearts of students and educators: for students, test and examination, and for educators, evaluation, accountability, and No Child Left Behind (which some of my colleagues have asserted should be labeled No Child Left Untested). I can take several directions with a controversial, convoluted topic such as assessment. Much of what is written here will not be "new"; however, there might be a few wrinkles to pique (inflame?) your intellect for further dialogue.
I assume that you have been saddened—and perhaps exasperated, but not surprised—by newspaper reports of the recent widespread "cheating scandals" in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York with respect to the high-stakes state achievement tests. Principals and teachers were implicated because, apparently, many of the answers by the students on the tests were "changed" manually. As I remarked to my wife (who grew up in Pennsylvania), this is to be expected when people's jobs are "on the line" or if pay increases are determined predominantly or solely by the performance of the students on these tests.
With respect to the above situation, let me proffer a few remarks about the slippery constructs and possible interrelations of teacher performance, student performance, and "the measurement of learning." "Slippery" means that these constructs are so complex and ill defined that it is not possible to reach a consensus on descriptions and measurements. One may try to operationally define these entities and decide on the "assessments" (for purposes of accountability, achievement, etc.). However, there will be major dissensions—which, unfortunately, can only be resolved politically, but not academically or philosophically. Those of you in teacher education or other types of preparation programs might relate to some of the following comments.
Let's begin with one assertion that typically causes coffee spillage in my house: There is no linear relationship between teacher performance and student performance—unless you are a die-hard radical behaviorist or a deranged social-cognitive constructivist. What makes us think that any educator who has about 7 hours of a child's life per day and is competing with other "distractions" (e.g., media, technology, home life, parental status and relations, community conditions, socioemotional issues of the child, la de la la) is and can be solely or predominantly the cause of "learning" (whatever that means) in that child or, more specifically, that child's performance on a test? It becomes even more complicated when you add 7 to 12 to 25 diverse children to the mix, depending on whether you are a teacher of children in general or in special education.
Hold the cyber-tomatoes. . . . I do think it is important to have "good" teachers in the schools. There is little doubt that teacher educators or others who work in preparation programs should do their best to produce (if that is the word) excellent teachers or other practitioners, according to high standards (whatever that means). I am just not convinced that a teacher is good (read: competent) just because a student performs well on a standardized test. Of course, I am not convinced that a teacher is bad (read: incompetent) if a student performs below par on a test. I am not even convinced that a teacher is _________ if a student performs _________ on any test. [End Page 339]
I do believe that teachers can facilitate students' performances or, perhaps...