Assessment Reform In Action In Milwaukee

K-12 Testing

The Milwaukee Public Schools system (MPS) has begun to design and implement an integrated assessment system that can support and report on important student learning. While the district is still in the early stages of developing the system, MPS is ahead of other large urban districts in assessment reform.

FairTest studied Milwaukee's progress in light of the National Forum on Assessment's Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems (see Examiner, Fall/Winter, 1995-96) as part of a grant from the Joyce Foundation. A report released this February, Assessment in the Milwaukee Public Schools, praised the city's progress. FairTest's primary recommendation is that MPS support a substantially expanded focus on classroom assessment, building on all the existing performance assessment elements in the school system.

Principle 1: The Primary Purpose of Assessment Is to Improve Student Learning

Many Milwaukee schools are using high-quality assessment packages such as the Work Sampling System (see Examiner, Fall 1995). Curriculum specialists are leading efforts across the district to improve classroom assessment and integrate it with curriculum and instruction. A federal grant to improve math and science instruction also includes an assessment reform component. However, all these initiatives are unevenly developed across and within schools.

FairTest recommends that all schools be required to adopt a comprehensive classroom, performance-based assessment program that is integrated with curriculum and instruction. It is not necessary that all schools adopt the same package, but every program must enable the systematic collection and evaluation of ongoing student classroom work.

Principle 2: Assessment for Other Purposes Supports Student Learning

Milwaukee is using a mix of assessments for accountability purposes. These include proficiency exams in math (short and extended-response items), writing exams, and science performance assessment exams. FairTest recommends that MPS stay the course in developing these assessments. They have begun to have a positive affect on classroom instruction and assessment and are a useful part of MPS' accountability program.

MPS relies far less on traditional standardized tests than do most large districts. However, the role of such assessments in the accountability program remains larger than it should, particularly in elementary schools, where three standardized tests are used. These tests were not developed to assess the overall goals and direction of MPS for curriculum and instruction. Including them in the accountability mix sends confusing messages to both teachers and students.

FairTest recommends that these tests be dropped from MPS accountability plan and the one standardized test not mandated by the state be dropped entirely. The FairTest review did recognize that the state tests were unlikely to be dropped from the accountability plan until other measures have solidly established their validity and public acceptance.

MPS currently uses two proficiency exams, in math and writing, as part of its graduation requirements. Students who do not pass an exam can submit a portfolio as an alternative means of graduating, a route followed by some students. MPS plans to implement a more comprehensive portfolio system for graduation.

FairTest supports MPS' plan to use a mix of assessments, including portfolios, to determine proficiency for grade 8 and high school graduation. When this approach is properly implemented, no single test determines graduation, optional means of demonstrating proficiency are always available, and the primary basis of the determination is through work done in the classroom over time. MPS' Grade 8 Proficiency plan needs only minor changes to reach this point.

FairTest is concerned about inadequate and inequitable opportunities to learn in Milwaukee. MPS must rigorously and systematically study student progress in light of actual learning opportunities. Where opportunity to learn is inadequate, rapid and strong support must be provided to the students.

Principle 3: Assessment Systems Are Fair to All Students

Assessment reform can support MPS' comprehensive anti-bias and fairness goals. Use of classroom-based performance assessments can allow every student multiple and varied opportunities to demonstrate proficiency and can help create a climate which does "project anti-racist, anti- biased attitudes," as MPS' systemwide goals state.

MPS is taking steps to ensure that its exams and systemwide assessments are fair and unbiased. This includes careful translation to Spanish (other translations may be needed), accommodations for students with disabilities (though some students may still be assessed inappropriately), review of tasks for bias (more can be done, such as interviewing students), and educating assessment scorers to counter their potential biases.

Principle 4: Professional Collaboration and Development Support Assessment

Strengthened professional development for teachers is the indispensable counterpart to improved assessment. MPS is doing more in this crucial area than are most other large districts. Nonetheless, improvement is needed in three major areas: expanding professional development opportunities, providing increased time for professional collaboration where teachers work together, and making professional development somewhat more systematic. These improvements will require additional resources.

Principle 5: The Broad Community Participates in Assessment Development, and

Principle 6: Communication about Assessment is Regular and Clear

While MPS has involved parents and community in developing goals and standards, MPS staff concur that far more needs to be done to reach these groups about assessment. FairTest is concerned that without adequate public education, the community will not understand or support the assessment changes in the system. FairTest recommends that MPS develop an active and ongoing outreach effort to educate and involve parents and community members about assessment. As part of that effort, FairTest is working with MPS and other groups in Milwaukee to develop fact sheets and other materials about assessment.

Principle 7: Assessment Systems Are Regularly Reviewed and Improved

Finally, MPS must develop ways to regularly review and improve its assessment systems. This includes teacher ability to use good assessment practices in the classroom as well as district-wide assessments. The consequences of the assessments for students and their learning must be studied. The technical quality of the system also must be reviewed. A team of MPS leaders, with teachers, school administrators, parents and community members should oversee the evolution and improvement of the assessment program.


MPS is developing an assessment program that could become a national model. Success in this effort will mean not simply measuring to high standards. It will mean MPS has developed a system which provides necessary information and support that will enable all students to meet high standards in a diverse and equitable fashion.

-- A copy of the full report is available from FairTest for $15.00. The Executive Summary is posted on FairTest's website.

-- To order Principles and Indicators, use the order form