The University Record, April 1, 2002

Wixson discusses educational reform

By Dana Ondrei Fair
News and Information Services

“My worst fear is that if we just [test schools], we’re going to see more management systems that don’t get us where we want to go,” said Dean Karen Wixson, School of Education in a presentation before the Wolverine Caucus in Lansing. Discussing the values and flaws of K-12 testing, she spoke with alumni, reporters, educators and other U-M friends on how to create a more vibrant learning environment in the midst of the current U.S. educational reforms.

Drawing on a wealth of empirical data and experiential knowledge, Wixson explained that academic accountability is a good thing—something educators are not fighting. Legislators, however, need to ensure that various school policies provide for good accountability through a well-designed plan. The current plan assumes that standardized tests are sufficient for assessing how well schools are doing. It also makes the assumption that the consequences of poor test performance are enough to improve teaching and learning in schools with unfavorable examination results.

The current school assessment program has serious problems, Wixson warned. Policy makers need to recognize these limitations. By contrast, the development of an innovative and multilevel school assessment system would permit informed decisions related to the proper allocation of resources to strengthen schools and K–12 programs.

According to Wixson, large-scale, on-demand assessments can be used as a barometer determining how a particular district or region is doing. However, they are not the best indicators of how individuals —whether students, teachers or administrators— are doing. On the other hand, curriculum-embedded assessments would be more effective in determining how schools and individuals are doing on a variety of levels and over a wider range of time.

School tests and systems for assessment furnish policy makers and administrators with information on how to respond next, Wixson stated. Yet, schools vary greatly in their ability to respond meaningfully to poor student performance. While consequences for underachievement provide motivation, it is not enough if schools are not properly equipped or if they don’t know how to respond once left with negative test results.

Wixson pointed out that research indicates schools threatened with severe penalties for low performance generally do not change their fundamental instructional practices. Rather, they shift their focus toward short-term gains in test scores, and away from student academic retention. Areas not appearing on standardized tests can then be considered superfluous. Research also suggests that when teachers do not have a sense of collective responsibility for improving student learning, they often are unwilling to change their curriculum in essential ways, opting instead for easy responses to external accountability pressures. However, evidence from a soon-to-be-published study by Wixson and her colleagues suggests that long-term professional development at the district level can help create this sense of collective responsibility among teachers that is so essential to improving student learning.

Assessment practices affecting student learning will be effective only if they are tied directly to building capacity, Wixson said. Accountability systems are likely to be unsuccessful if they increase testing without making certain that assessments are fair and valid, teachers are prepared, and responses to poor performance are appropriate. A successful program, according to the dean, has several outcomes: it builds capacity for instruction improvement as well as documentation and monitoring factors; it focuses on student work as a lever for change; and it creates an accountability system that reaches into the classroom and results in improved classroom teaching and student learning.

“[We’re] not questioning the motives of those who are preparing the [educational assessment] program,” Wixson said. “The question is whether the methods are giving us what we want to give. It may be a fundamental, philosophical change, but for teachers, it may be like placing new wine in old wine bottles.”