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Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Eduacational Assessment
in these particular areas, and that is what has to be improved, the other components being at the desired level.
Likewise, assessments designed to evaluate programs should provide the kinds of information decision makers can use to improve those programs. People tend to think of school administrators and policy makers as removed from concerns about the details of instruction. Thus large-scale assessment information aimed at those users tends to be general and comparative, rather than descriptive of the nature of learning that is taking place in their schools. Practices in some school districts, however, are challenging these assumptions (Resnick and Harwell, 1998).
Telling an administrator that mathematics is a problem is too vague. Knowing how a school is performing in mathematics relative to past years, how it is performing relative to other schools, and what proportions of students fall in various broadly defined achievement categories also provides little guidance for program improvement. Saying that students do not understand probability is more useful, particularly to a curriculum planner. And knowing that students tend to confuse conditional and compound probability can be even more useful for the modification of curriculum and instruction. Of course, the sort of feedback needed to improve instruction depends on the program administrator’s level of control.
Not only do large-scale assessments provide means for reporting on student achievement, but they also convey powerful messages about the kinds of learning valued by society. Large-scale assessments should be used by policy makers and educators to operationalize and communicate among themselves, and to the public, the kinds of thinking and learning society wishes to encourage in students. In this way, assessments can foster valuable dialogue about learning and its assessment within and beyond the education system. Models of learning should be shared and communicated in accessible ways to show what competency in a domain looks like. For example, Developmental Assessment based on progress maps is being used in the Commonwealth of Victoria to assess literacy. An evaluation of the program revealed that users were “overwhelmingly positive about the value and potential of Developmental Assessment as a means for developing shared understandings and a common language for literacy development” (Meiers and Culican, 2000, p. 44).
Example: The New Standards Project
The New Standards Project, as originally conceived (New Standards™, 1997a, 1997b, 1997c), illustrates ways to approach many of the issues of large-scale assessment discussed above. The program was designed to provide clear goals for learning and assessments that are closely tied to those