Monday, June 23, 2008

Ohio education grant to study alternatives to standardized testing

State will study alternative assessment
Monday, June 16, 2008
Scott Stephens
Plain Dealer Reporter

Put down that No. 2 pencil and grab a paint brush. Or design a research project. Or go to work in a homeless shelter.

A growing number of people in Ohio are asking whether one-size-fits-all standardized tests - the cheapest and most efficient way to meet federal No Child Left Behind accountability requirements - are the best and fairest way to measure academic progress.

In April, Ohio education officials secured a $1.3 million grant to explore alternative assessments, such as portfolios, senior projects, journals, small-group collaborations or teacher observation. The idea: Give students an assessment that requires them to accomplish complex or significant tasks rather than forcing them to choose from multiple-choice responses.

And earlier this month, a statewide student group, Ohio Youth Voices, asked Gov. Ted Strickland to consider alternatives to the Ohio Graduation Test. Currently, Ohio students have to pass the five-part exam by the end of their senior year to get a diploma.

"Schools once renowned for their unique learning programs are becoming nothing more than soulless factories that churn out those that can excel at standardized tests while discarding those who can't," the leaders of the group, Shaw High School senior Jonathan Lykes and Federal Hocking High School senior Mason Pesek, wrote to the governor.

"We'd really like to talk to the governor and work to come up with another system," Pesek said in an interview. "Essentially, the current system is really failing Ohio's students."

Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said the governor's office was reviewing the letter.

"The governor is aware that concerns have been raised about the Ohio Graduation Test," Dailey said. "He is open to exploring other types of assessments to address those concerns as part of the education reform process."

The exploration will begin in September when teams of educators from districts across the state will gather in Columbus and be asked to choose from a smorgasbord of alternative assessments and field-test them during the coming school year. The theory: Since students learn in different ways, shouldn't they also be tested in different ways?

"Our current tests are just one measure of learning, just like in medicine, a blood test is one measure," said State Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman.

"We see this as giving kids multiple ways to demonstrate their competence and still have academic rigor," she added. "I think we can do this in Ohio and lead the rest of the country."

While Ohio might be positioning itself as a trend-setter in alternative assessments, the concept is hardly new. In the early 1990s, Vermont required all eighth-graders to complete a portfolio assessment in both English and math. Kentucky overhauled its testing program in 1998 and used an assessment that combined essays, multiple-choice questions and a writing portfolio.

"It was a very hot topic," said Ron Dietel, assistant director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Stan dards and Student Testing at UCLA. "There was a general concern that standardized tests really didn't show what students know."

Cincinnati was among the most progressive districts in the country on alternative, or performance-based, assessment. Students demonstrated their grasp of history by taking on a character from the past. They learned about Reconstruction by reading the diaries of white teachers sent to the South. They wrote letters to local newspapers, or gave public speeches.

"I've seen it as energizing rather than depressing," said veteran teacher Diana Porter. "It's assessment that is still standards-based, but students get to shape it a little, too."

But alternative assessments had their problems. They could be difficult to score and costly to implement. Political pressure grew to find something more efficient, a pressure that eventually led to the standardized test- oriented No Child Left Behind law in 2002.

With reauthorization of the federal law stalled in Congress, some see an opportunity to incorporate alternative tests into the federal mandate. Rhode Island lawmakers, for instance, have integrated alternative assessments into their state's testing system.

But Dietel warns that the easy lure of simple test scores has not disappeared.

"I wouldn't necessarily expect states to jump back on the alternative-assessment bandwagon," he said. "Even though a lot of states and a lot of schools would like to do it, a lot of people like looking at those regular test scores to see how their schools are doing."

And when teachers and principals are judged solely by the test scores of their students, there will be little time for portfolios and letters to the editor, Porter said.

"It's harder now to get teachers to stick their toe in the water and give it a try," she said.

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