FairTest-NEA Host National Conference on Transforming Assessment and Accountability

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, July 2009

Educators, administrators, assessment experts, legislators and activists from around the nation gathered in Alexandria, VA, in May to listen, learn and exchange ideas on “Transforming Assessment and Accountability Systems.” The conference, cosponsored by FairTest and the National Education Association, attracted more than 150 attendees who came from Hawaii to Vermont and Alaska to Florida. The goal of the working conference was to help participants think through what an ideal assessment system would look like and begin to strategize how to win it.

The conference sponsors provided a framework for rich discussions in the form of a set of principles for improving assessment and accountability developed by the Forum on Educational Accountability (http://www.fairtest.org/potential-principles-building-highquality-state-a-0). Among these are equity and capacity building for student learning; comprehensive state and local assessment systems; assessment and accountability for diverse student populations; fair appraisal of academic performance; fair accountability decisions; and use of assessment and accountability to improve schools and student learning.

In the opening address, assessment expert James Pellegrino, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained the limits of standardized tests, decried our country’s current obsession with testing, and explained why we need to change the assessments we use to drive better instruction and learning. He said assessment can serve both positive and negative functions in educational systems. It is negative when testing becomes the de-facto driver of curriculum and instruction. On the other hand, it is positive when it breaks down barriers and forces diverse stakeholders to have deep conversations about what we want students to know and be able to do and the implications for teaching and learning. Pellegrino charged attendees with educating policymakers on the need to focus on instruction and to ensure they understand the limits and proper uses of tests.

After Pellegrino’s remarks, an expert panel tackled various facets of the issue, including Susan Brookhart, Brookhart Consulting, on the need for multiple indicators; Alba Ortiz, University of Texas at Austin, on the need for assessment to be fair and authentic for all students; and Gene Wilhoit, Council of Chief State School Officers, on the need to define what is worth learning.

FairTest Interim Executive Director Monty Neill focused on the need to shift from an accountability model to a “shared responsibility” approach and the need to build systems that rely primarily on school and classroom assessing. He said that responsibility must be shared among governments, educators, parents and communities. “It requires continuing dialog and mutual respect. Only in a context of shared responsibility, rather than enforced top-down accountability, can the energy of educators truly be released.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the attendees and answered questions on his plans for the nation’s schools. The NEA's Joel Packer provided a detailed update on NCLB and the stimulus law.

The cosponsors will be facilitating ongoing communication among the attendees to move ahead on putting the ideas developed at the conference into action.

  • Check back to that page for a forthcoming report on the conference.