Ideally in a balanced assessment environment, a single assessment does not function in isolation, but rather within a nested assessment system involving states, local school districts, schools, and classrooms. Assessment systems should be designed to optimize the credibility and utility of the resulting information for both educational decision making and general monitoring. To this end, an assessment system should exhibit three properties: comprehensiveness, coherence, and continuity. These three characteristics describe an assessment system that is aligned along three dimensions: vertically, across levels of the education system; horizontally, across assessment, curriculum, and instruction; and temporally, across the course of a student’s studies. These notions of alignment are consistent with those set forth by the National Institute for Science Education (Webb, 1997) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1995).

Features of a Balanced Assessment System

By comprehensiveness, we mean that a range of measurement approaches should be used to provide a variety of evidence to support educational decision making. Educational decisions often require more information than a single measure can provide. As emphasized in the NRC report High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation, multiple measures take on particular importance when important, life-altering decisions (such as high school graduation) are being made about individuals. No single test score can be considered a definitive measure of a student’s competence. Multiple measures enhance the validity and fairness of the inferences drawn by giving students various ways and opportunities to demonstrate their competence. The measures could also address the quality of instruction, providing evidence that improvements in tested achievement represent real gains in learning (NRC, 1999c).

One form of comprehensive assessment system is illustrated in Table 6– 1, which shows the components of a U.K. examination for certification of top secondary school students who have studied physics as one of three chosen subjects for 2 years between ages 16 and 18. The results of such examinations are the main criterion for entrance to university courses. Components A, B, C, and D are all taken within a few days, but E and F involve activities that extend over several weeks preceding the formal examination.

This system combines external testing on paper (components A, B, and C) with external performance tasks done using equipment (D) and teachers’ assessment of work done during the course of instruction (E and F). While

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