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ERIC Identifier: ED389959
Publication Date: 1995-00-00
Author: Roeber, Edward
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services Greensboro NC.

Emerging Student Assessment Systems for School Reform. ERIC Digest.

Currently, much discussion is taking place about the quality of American schools, the skills needed by students, and the ways we should be assessing these achievements. Student assessment is viewed nationally as the pivotal piece around which school reform and improvement in the nation's schools turn. For example, student assessment is the key piece of Goals 2000, as well as other federal legislation such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act


The result is that substantially more assessment is likely to occur in our nation's schools, and to take place in areas traditionally not assessed (such as the arts), using assessment strategies (such as performance assessments and portfolios) not typically used. States and local districts are reconsidering the models for systems of assessment and how assessment at the state and local levels can be coordinated to achieve the reforms desired in education.


Widespread belief that schools are not helping all students achieve at the levels that are needed, has spurred efforts to reform our schools. Concerns have been raised that the ways we teach students, as well as assess them, do not lead students to acquire needed knowledge or skills, nor help them apply and use their knowledge and skills appropriately. At the national and state levels, content standards containing the types of knowledge, skills and behaviors now believed needed for all students to achieve at high levels are being developed. Starting with such efforts as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM,1989), content standards are being developed in the arts, civics, economics, English, foreign languages, geography, health education, history, physical education, science, and social studies.

School reform is also motivated by the belief that there are competencies needed for graduates to enter the workforce successfully. The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills developed generic competencies and foundation skills that all workers will need in the future (U.S. Department of Labor, 1991). They include flexible problem solving, respecting the desires of the customer, working well on teams, taking responsibility for one's own performance, and continuous learning and have been developed to guide the efforts of educational reform in the direction helping more students to make the transition to work successfully.

Collectively, these standards represent substantial challenges for the American schools. They imply that all students will need to achieve at much higher levels. New strategies for assessment are also implied by these content standards.


Student assessment is at the top of the list of things to tinker with by policymakers at the national and state levels, since it is viewed as a means to set more appropriate targets for students, focus staff development efforts for the nation's teachers, encourage curriculum reform and improve instruction and instructional materials in a variety of subject matters and disciplines (Darling-Hammond & Wise, 1985). Assessment is important because it is widely believed that what gets assessed is what gets taught, and that the format of assessment influences the format of learning and teaching. (O'Day & Smith, 1993). The hope of policy makers is that changes in assessment will not only bring about the needed changes in students, but also in ways schools are organized (Linn, 1987, Madaus, 1985). Interest in performance assessment has also been justified on the basis that using such measures will promote educational equity (National Center on Education and the Economy, 1989). Student assessment carries a heavy load these days!

Of course, outside pressure external on testing programs can be ignored or resisted by local educators (Smith and Cohen, 1991). There is also ample evidence of the distortions in teaching that external testing programs can create (Shepard & Smith, 1988). Rather than encourage reform of teaching, inappropriate teaching to the test may occur (as opposed to teaching to the domain covered by the test). Rather than creating opportunities for all students to learn to high levels, even new forms of assessment may lead to tracking and limiting opportunities for some students (Darling-Hammond, 1994; Oakes, 1985.)

Assessment reform should occur along with professional development, instructional development, and other strategies designed to assure that all of the changes are mutually supported. Coordination of assessment reform at the national and state levels with assessments at the local level is also important, so that each will present a coherent view of student performance, not simply be "stuck" together.


New content standards may require different assessment methods. Among the assessment techniques now being considered are short-answer, open-ended; extended-response, open-ended; individual interviews; performance events; performance tasks in which students have extended time; projects; portfolios; observations; and anecdotal records, in addition to multiple-choice exercises. A broader repertoire of techniques is increasingly being used.


The information about student achievement needed at various levels of the educational system is different. Parents have different needs that teachers, who in turn, have different needs than school principals. District administrators need broader, system-wide information, while at the state level, there is concern about equity across districts and identification of state priorities. Nationally, policy makers are concerned about differences between states and how competitive American students are with their peers in other countries.

Improving student achievement can take place at each of these levels. Teachers work with an individual student in a classroom, or revamp classroom-wide instruction based on an assessment. At the school level, educators use school information to set long-and-short-range objectives and decide how to accomplish these. At the district level, educators target particular areas of the curriculum for attention. At the state level, incentives for improving instructional programs may be most important. School reform occurs at all levels of the educational system.


Typically, student achievement is measured with available student test data, often using information from district or state testing programs. Information collected less formally in classrooms is not typically included in school improvement plans, even though such information could provide valuable insights into student learning.

The nature of information needs should form the basis for an assessment design. In a top-down model, policymakers develop an assessment design that meets their needs, hoping the data may be useful by persons at lower levels. An alternative is to build the assessment system needed at the local level, aggregating the information upwards to the district, state and national levels.

Another model, based on the assumption that multiple approaches will allow different users' needs to be met, is to develop a comprehensive assessment system using different assessment formats to meet different users' needs. Various assessment strategies can be implemented together at the different levels to provide for the different information needs in a coordinated, coherent manner (Darling-Hammond, 1994).

For example, local districts can adopt a portfolio system for improving instruction, while the state carries out matrix-sampling across important standards. The information collected by the state can become part of the student's portfolio, thereby strengthening the portfolio's quality. The state could also provide opportunities for teachers to learn to score the open-ended written and performance assessments, thereby enhancing teachers' capabilities of observing and rating student performances in their classrooms.

In this case, the elements of the system at the different levels build on and support the elements at other levels. It is also anticipated that information collected at the different levels can be reported in a more understandable manner, since the same standards apply in different ways. This assessment model enhances the reforms of schools so many desire.


This is indeed a time when American schools are being challenged to provide opportunities for students to achieve at much higher levels. Assessment is viewed as one of the essential elements in assisting schools to address the standards now deemed to be important in a manner that will help all students to achieve them. The major challenge for assessment is to implement these additional assessments in a coordinated manner so that the amount of assessment is supportive of the changes needed, not overly burdensome to teachers or students. Models for coordination assessment at the state, district and classroom levels appear most promising.


Darling-Hammond, L. and A. Wise (1985). Beyond standardization: state standards and school improvement. Elementary School Journal, 85, 315-36.

Darling-Hammond, L. (Spring, 1994). Performance assessment and educational equity. Harvard Educational Review, 64 (1): 5-29.

Linn, R. (1987). Accountability: The comparison of educational systems and the quality of test results. Educational Policy, 1(2): 181-198.

Madaus, G. (1985). Public policy and the testing profession-you've never had it so good? Educational Measurement: Issues and Practices, 4 (1): 5-11.

National Center on Education and the Economy (1989). To secure our future: The federal role in education. Rochester, NY: Author.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author, 1989.

Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New Haven: Yale University Press.

O'Day, J.A. and M. Smith (1993). Systemic school reform and educational opportunity. In S, Fuheman (Ed.), Designing coherent educational policy: Improving the system. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pages 250-311.

Roeber, E. (1992). 1. Developing the comprehensive assessment system: A. top down, B. bottom up, C. both, D. none of the above. Paper presented at the 1992 Education Commission of the States Conference on Large-Scale Assessment.

Shepard, L.A. and M.L. Smith (1988). Escalating academic demand in kindergarten: Counterproductive Policies. Elementary School Journal, 89, 135-145.

Smith, M. and M. Cohen (September 1991). A national curriculum in the United States? Educational Leadership, 49 (1): 74-81.

U.S. Department of Labor (1991). Secretary's commission on achieving necessary skills. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.


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