Education Department Plans Use of $350 Million in Test Development Funds

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, November 2009

Testing reform advocates face dangerous developments and some opportunities as the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) develops plans to spend $350 million on "common" assessments tied to new national subject area standards, part of its Race to the Top (RTTT) fund. USED has issued "Assessment Program Design" frameworks to structure discussions by invited experts and public comments at hearings in Boston, Denver and Atlanta. FairTest testified Nov. 12 in Boston, critiquing RTTT in general and the framework in particular, while providing recommendations on building high-quality assessment systems. Written testimony can be submitted by Dec. 2 (see links below, and RTTT article in this issue).

The Department's framework mandates that consortia of states create new large-scale "common" tests and perhaps other forms of assessment, based on the new content standards. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have released drafts of the standards. Once finalized, states will have to adopt them, an uncertain process that could face sharp opposition, even though DOE proposes to make their adoption mandatory for states obtaining RTTT funds. Whether consortia will organize to focus on just one subject, leading to only one national test in a subject, or several test-making consortia develop for each subject, will emerge in a political process that inevitably will also include testing companies (who dominated the writing of the standards). FairTest has long opposed creation of a national test, which is what this likely will become.

Half the funds must be allocated to school districts. The structure proposed by the Department emphasizes centralized state control over assessment, with districts limited to implementing state exams and teachers reduced to administering and perhaps scoring them. High-stakes state tests remove control from educators, classrooms, schools and communities. Proponents argue they ensure common expectations for all students in a society that leaves many children behind.

Many assessment reformers are promoting local diversity, flexibility and equity within systems constructed to ensure high-quality education and assessment for all. The Expert Panel on Assessment of the Forum on Educational Accountability outlined an assessment structure for accomplishing this complex task. Concrete examples of components of such systems exist in the U.S. as well as other nations. 

Some proponents of the new common tests join with assessment reformers in favoring development of more than just state exams. One idea is to use classroom- or school-based evidence of student learning, such as portfolios, in evaluating schools. A complementary idea is to make carefully reviewed performance tasks and computerized forms of assessment available for teachers to use at their discretion. This could include creating state or cross-state “banks” of approved, mostly teacher-constructed tasks. In addition, professional development that prepares teachers to create and use summative and formative assessments should be included in approved uses of the federal funds. 

The USED framework would allow districts to spend money on benchmark and formative assessments. Teachers use formative assessments tied to a specific curriculum in the flow of instruction, so it is not a matter of developing particular instruments but rather of enhancing teacher knowledge and skill. In its overly centralized conception, the Department's guidelines only address designing "assessments that align with State summative assessments," misconstruing the very idea of formative assessments.

The struggle ahead is to win a system that does not rely on single high-stakes exams, which is where the Department appears to be headed.