Score one for the KAPPAN magazine. The edu-magazine has a very timely piece on school accountability in its just-mailed December issue by top Obama policy advisor Linda Darling-Hammond. Anonymous “reformers,” some of whom also have ties to the Obama administration-in-waiting, have been taking shots at the Stanford professor during the transition, in part because she has been tough on the quality of state testing under NCLB. They have declared her to be “anti-accountability.”
The KAPPAN piece provides a valuable window on her thinking. She’s indeed not a fan of NCLB-brand multiple-choice testing. “NCLB reinforced using test-based accountability to raise achievement, yet the US has fallen further behind on international assessments of student learing since the law was passed in 2001,” she declares at the top of the article.
Darling-Hammond has spent a lot of time studying the teaching and testing systems of high achieving industrialized countries and likes them better than ours. Among other things, she says, they teach fewer topics in greater depth; focus more on reasoning skills and applications of knowledge rather than on coverage of content; and rely heavily on open-ended questions “that require students to analyze, apply knowledge, and write extensively,” in contrast to US tests that “rely primarily on multiple-choice items that evalute recall and recognition of discreet facts.” She’s right about that.
Darling-Hammond points approvingly to a “growing emphasis” in high-performing countries on “project-based, inquiry-oriented learning” that has led “to an increasing prominence for school-based tasks, which include research projects, science investigations, development of products and reports or presentations about these efforts”–so-called performance tests. The bulk of the article (written with co-author Laura McClosky) describes approvingly locally administered peformance assessment in countries ranging from Finland to Australia, Hong Kong, Sweden, and the UK.
There’s little doubt that LDH would push to introduce these kinds of assessments into US public education if she were to have a senior role in the Obama administration: We need, she writes, “a new vision of assessment” in American education. To the extent that testing drives teaching, that would be a good thing.
The question is whether she would push to incorporate performance tests into NCLB-style statewide testing systems, or try to move testing down to the local level.
In writing that “the policy community has little understanding about how systems of assessment for learning might be constructed and managed at scale,” she is acknowledging the challenges of using performance testing under the NCLB system, cost and scoring reliability chief among them. One thing she might do if she goes to work for Obama would be to have the federal government sponsor an effort to address the difficulties of doing performance testing at scale, and give states financial incentives for using such tests. Given the growing consensus that well-crafted performance assessments would represent a big step towards teaching students the higher-order thinking skills that they need today (Darling-Hammond points out that US students score lower on problem-solving that their international counterparts), this would be a smart investment–and a refreshing change from the Bush administration’s hear-no-evil, see-no-evil stance on test quality.
Another possible policy solution, she implies elsewhere in the article, would be to include performance-based local assessments into “overall examination scoring systems.” That’s what several of the countries she has studied do.
The big question for supporters of NCLB’s statewide standardized testing systems is whether performance assessments would be used for holding educators accountable for student achievement. Much edu-blood was spilled over that question a year ago, when Rep. George Miller included the notion of local assessments in a draft NCLB reauthorization bill.The combatants eventually withdrew from the field and the Miller draft was decommissioned.
But it’s clear that Darling-Hammond is ambivalent about using performance testing to hold educators accountable for student achievment. She notes that the countries she has studied “do not use their examination systems to rank or punish schools or to deny diplomas to students.” Finland, she writes, “has no external standardized tests to rank students or schools.” Instead, she writes approvingly, the testing systems in Finland and other countries are closely linked to efforts to develop teachers’ ability to teach higher-level skills to their students; they are part of the countries’ human capital strategies.
So, if Barack Obama gives Linda Darling Hammond a major role in his administration, we’re going to have a big policy debate over testing in American education and whether we should move beyond NCLB accountability to something potentially very different. Such a debate wouldn’t be a bad thing.