The University Record, June 19, 1995

No more grades: new approaches to assessment replace standard tests and report cards in a growing number of schools

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Growing numbers of school children today are being assessed in ways that link the process of evaluation with teaching and learning more effectively than ever before. These new performance assessments are designed to improve instruction with methods that are more understandable and informative to teachers, parents and children alike.

One of the most widely used approaches to performance assessment from preschool to fifth grade is the Work Sampling System developed by education Prof. Samuel J. Meisels and his colleagues. Over 75,000 children in more than 3,000 classrooms from Vermont, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Arizona, South Carolina and other states now use it.

"Work sampling represents a major departure from ordinary classroom assessments," Meisels says. "Unlike tests and report cards which provide an isolated snapshot of what a child is accomplishing, work sampling provides parents with a frame-by-frame moving picture of what's going on inside the classroom.

"With work sampling," Meisels says, "teachers develop effective strategies for helping individual students learn while documenting and evaluating the work of all their students. The system includes developmental checklists, portfolios of students' work and periodic written reports that help the teacher evaluate and keep track of the student's accomplishments across the entire year.

"The work sampling guidelines and checklists give teachers a structured framework of age/grade-level expectations. These become a lens or catalyst for observing all students, not just the brightest or the loudest.

"Portfolios," he continues, "allow teachers, students and parents to review a child's growth over time as reflected in actual classroom work. Achievement in portfolios is documented in a number of ways. There is rarely just one way to demonstrate learning."

"The summary report that the teacher completes combines checklist observations and portfolio evaluations with teacher comments. These reports are completed three times a year and give a picture of the whole child."

Parents are usually a little nervous at first about changing how their children are assessed and how report cards look, Meisels notes. But the vast majority of parents wind up preferring work sampling to conventional methods.

Meisels has found that work sampling is more effective and reliable than sophisticated individualized testing at predicting children's progress from the start of one school year to the end. In an article to be published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Meisels and colleagues compared the validity and reliability of each approach to assessment in predicting the school performance of 100 kindergarten children. The Work Sampling System's evaluation methods proved to be consistent and reliable, and they were even more accurate than conventional testing at predicting children's school achievement.

Meisels and his colleagues also say that work sampling improves classroom instruction. "Teachers report that they are challenged and become better observers of children's growth," he says. "Children's self-confidence and ability to see and evaluate their own growth is improved. And parents' initial fears are replaced by excitement about a system that helps teachers really know children's strengths and weaknesses while increasing their motivation to learn." The Work Sampling System is funded in part by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Heinz, Mott and Joyce foundations.