National Forum Releases Principles and Indicators

K-12 Testing

Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems, a set of guidelines for the reform of student assessment, was released in early December by the National Forum on Assessment. The Forum is a coalition of major education and civil rights organizations, founded and co-chaired by FairTest. The Principles have been endorsed by more than 80 organizations and over 120 individuals (see p. 19).


The Forum developed the Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems to help transform assessment systems and practices as part of wider school reform. The first principle reads, The primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning (see Summary, pp. 22-23).


The Purpose

The Forum concluded that if helping students learn is the primary purpose of assessment, then high quality classroom assessment had to be the core of every assessment system. (The classroom does not have to be limited to the school building.) Only in the classroom can assessment be integrated with curriculum and teaching in ways that encourage thinking, reflection, and use of knowledge, while allowing students multiple ways to demonstrate their learning. Only in the classroom can assessment be adapted to the variety of contexts in which learning takes place and knowledge is used. Only in the classroom can assessment be used as part of the learning process, rather than as the measurement of something after the fact.


Making classroom assessment central overturns the entrenched paradigm the standardized, multiple-choice, often norm-referenced, stand-alone test. The new assessment model involves two elements: continuous observation and documentation of student learning, often in immediate interaction with the student; and maintaining a learning record or log backed up with a portfolio or collection of student work, which contains evaluation by both teacher and student. Within this context, tests, whether classroom or large-scale, are but one part of an array of assessment tools, rather than the dominant one.


Assessment must also serve other purposes. For one, the public deserves to have clear information about what youth are earning, and assessment provides some of this data (as do outcomes, such as subsequent student performance in college or the workplace). Another purpose is to certify accomplishment, such as by awarding a high school diploma. Schools and systems also are held accountable by the public for their performance.


Often, states and districts respond to all these issues by insisting on tests, primarily multiple-choice. The Forum concludes that if assessment is to support learning for all students, then such practices need to change. The Forum unequivocally states that certification should be based on work students have done over time, rather than one-time events: Important decisions... should not be made on the basis of any single assessment (Principle 2). For public information and accountability, coherent and credible information about programs must be obtained in ways that support and do not undermine high quality classroom practices. The Principles recommend a combination of classroom assessment information (such as portfolio reviews) and external or large-scale examinations, using sampling to the extent feasible.


The eventual forms of high-quality, supportive, technically sound large-scale assessment are not yet clear. The balance of classroom and external assessment, the variety of methods used, and assessment s precise role in providing public information and supporting accountability are among the issues that need further discussion. The Forum also concludes there should be only limited use of multiple-choice items. Moreover, assessments constructed to rank and sort students should not be a significant part of an assessment system. The Principles also call for the development of technical standards that are adequate for the new assessments and help ensure appropriate practice and beneficial consequences.


The Forum realizes that changing assessment will take time -- for public education, professional development, and developing new procedures and standards. Over the past year, a backlash against new forms of assessment has begun, fueled substantially by groups with a so-called back to basics educational agenda (see Examiner, Summer 1994) and complicated by technical difficulties with large-scale performance assessments that have not yet been overcome.


A retreat from high-quality practice back to forms of schooling that failed many children and rarely expected real thinking or use of knowledge is a real danger. The Principles, endorsed by many leading education and civil rights organizations, can be the basis for fighting this backlash and building renewed support for assessment in the service of real learning.


The Document

Principles and Indicators focuses on a set of seven principles, with corresponding indicators (see Summary, pp. 22-23). Each principle provides context and guidance for developing or refining an important part of the assessment system. The indicators are lists of more precise statements that can be used as a checklist in evaluating or developing assessment systems and their parts. The document includes an introduction, a statement of the educational foundations for high quality assessment, a glossary, a bibliography, and the summary.


The Principles were developed by the Forum through a two-year process that included not only participation by Forum organizations, but also meetings held in cities across the nation and regular feedback from individuals who received and commented on successive drafts. The Principles built upon an earlier Forum document, Criteria for the Evaluation of Student Assessment Systems, published in 1991.


To order Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems, use the form on p. 27.