Reforming Tests for Classrooms and Accountability

K-12 Testing

Two recent publications develop powerful critiques of the impact of standardized tests. One focuses on teaching literacy, the other on accountability. They add important depth to understanding the nature of the problem and to thinking about replacing most standardized tests for both educational and accountability purposes.

In "Literacy Assessment Reform: Shifting Beliefs, Principled Possibilities, and Emerging Practices" (The Reading Teacher, February 1998), Robert J. Tierney explains 13 key principles for assessment. He begins from the perspective that "the point of literacy is to reflect upon, and be empowered by, text rather than to be subjugated by it." He thus emphasizes assessments that emerge from the classroom and are "client centered and reciprocal," empowering both students and their teachers. Assessments are therefore done with, not to, students, who should learn to assess their own learning. Teachers must be skilled professionals and advocates for their students.

Because students and their interests and circumstances vary, assessments "may need to be nonstandardized to be fair to the individual." Tierney opposes reduction of assessment information to "simple-minded summaries, scores and comparisons" because such reductions are "usually arbitrary, biased and narrow" and foster a pervasive drive for uniformity. He also raises concerns about the narrowing, gatekeeping and disempowering effects of standards and accountability tests. He concludes that "assessment should be assessed in terms of its relationship with teaching and learning, including the opportunities learners are offered and the rights and respect they are accorded."

This thoughtful article should be widely read and used to reflect on assessment practices, and not only in literacy. However, the piece does not address how accountability information can be gained, nor what can be done when teachers lack the knowledge or perhaps the desire to engage in the assessments Tierney supports. It thus does not grapple directly with the thorny problem of how demands by communities for accountability and improved schools can be met in better ways than by imposing "tougher" standards and tests.



In "The Political Legacy of School Accountability Systems," Sherman Dorn develops a powerful and provocative critique of the damage caused by testing for accountability because of "how testing defines legitimate discussion about school politics." He argues, "The consequence of statistical accountability systems will be the narrowing of purpose for schools, impatience with reform, and the continuing erosion of political support for publicly funded schools." He cautions, "Alternatives to standardized testing which do not also connect schooling with the public at large will not be politically viable."

Dorn explains that in the tension between local control of schools and a continuing national discussion about education, standardized tests and the statistical data they produce have become the dominant way of publicly judging schools. This method tends to freeze conceptions of schooling, as though the goals, purposes, and practices were agreed upon. It excludes large segments of the population from participation in discussion and makes change more difficult. That is, statistics themselves rest on political conclusions and relations of power that are built into the determination of what evidence to gather and evaluate and what methods are to be used in the evaluation. The statistics then hide and make inaccessible those very conclusions and relations.

The tests tend to make teachers and administrators cynical, and to drive a wedge between educators and parents and the public. Dorn points out that "the narrowed political judgement of schools is the macropolitical equivalent of teaching to the test, a narrowing of the curriculum. . . . Relying on standardized tests and high-stakes pro-duction of test statistics is itself a dumbing-down of political debate and expectations for schools." However, he thinks that to succeed, assessment re-formers cannot focus only on educational consequences. They must also develop awareness of the political consequences of reliance on statistical accountability.

Dorn is not optimistic about the possibilities for change and believes that reliance on standardized tests will increase in the near future. He argues that relying on enhanced profes-sionalization of teachers as an alternative to testing is not likely to succeed politically, largely because of current skepticism about professionalism in general. In particular, he claims, teachers often are viewed as unaccountable to the community, particularly in urban districts. Professionalization also can be contrary to democratic control over schools.

He concludes that alternative conceptions of accountability must encourage deeper discussion of educational problems, connect student performance with classroom practice, and make the interests of all children common. He thinks that creating structures which bring the community into evaluating the school is one way to do this. Dorn concludes with a call to develop local models of alternative accountability that can be used to change the dynamics of educational politics.

Such models usually do not offer particulars of how this process can develop. Principle 5 of the Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems of the National Forum on Assessment also calls for expanded involvement of the community in the assessment process. The school councils in Chicago, in which an elected council comprised mostly of parents substantially governs each school and hires the principal, may have been a good start at developing active community accountability. However, it appears their authority now is being displaced by increased central administrative authority, with massive amounts of citywide standardized testing (see Examiner, Fall 1997). However, these are embryonic ideas which must be developed in practice. Dorn provides an important perspective from which to view this effort.

Dorn's paper is only available on the Web at, the site of the Education Policy Analysis Archives, a refereed electronic "journal."