The University Record, March 22, 1993

Speakers urge equity in testing

By Laurie Fenlason
Office of Federal Relations

Every year, Americans spend more than $100 million and 20 million school days to find out what students know—or don’t know.

Unfortunately, these “high stakes,” standardized tests are often used to deny educational opportunity rather than enhance it, to “sort and select” among students from different backgrounds, according to leading test reform advocates who gathered in Washington last week for a

U-M-sponsored conference.

As national school reform efforts have accelerated, equity—the notion that the content, language and format of tests not be biased for or against individuals because of gender, ethnicity, social class or physical abilities—has been recognized as important but not widely implemented, according to conference director Michael T. Nettles, professor of education and public policy.

With support from the Ford Foundation, Nettles convened the group of 120 business leaders, lawmakers, educators, philanthropists and student advocates to see “how the most innovative testing programs currently under development across the country may contribute to educational equity.”

Speakers included Colorado Gov. Roy Romer; Rep. William D. Ford; Gregory Anrig, president, Educational Testing Service; Diane Ravitch, former deputy secretary of education in the Bush Administration; Cinthia H. Schuman, president, FairTest; and Donald Stewart, president, The College Board. Madeleine Kunin, former governor of Vermont and deputy secretary of education, attended.

In lieu of traditional multiple-choice and short-answer tests, some educators have turned to alternative assessment methods in which teachers critique portfolios of student writing and drawing, oral presentations, exhibitions, experiments and debates, often in conjunction with observations of students’ performance in groups.

Samuel J. Meisels, professor of education, presented the Work Sampling System, an alternative assessment method he and two colleagues have developed for children ages 3–8. The system relies upon developmental checklists, periodic samples of children’s work and individual summary reports of teachers’ observations at three points during the school year.

Meisels’ program is being field-tested on nearly 6,000 students in 37 schools across the country. As important as the form of these “authentic assessments,” conference attendees agreed, are the purposes for which their results are used. Otherwise, in the words of Linda Darling-Hammond, the new assessments “will perpetuate the savage inequalities that already exist.” Darling-Hammond is dean of Columbia University’s Teachers College and was the keynote speaker.

“The bottom line is that people should learn as the result of assessments,” explained Walter Haney, associate professor, Boston College School of Education. “The goal is to design [an assessment] system that will help teachers work with kids,” agreed D. Monty Neill of FairTest. “So often, national assessment standards have undermined that.”

Participants also called for the creation of an independent oversight board to ensure that equity considerations remain part of the national education agenda. “As it stands, we have more control over what goes into the food we feed our pets than we do over the testing enterprise,” commented Schuman of FairTest.