the effectiveness of schools in accomplishing their missions could be used to sort students according to their general ability levels and provide schooling according to need. Yet significant problems have arisen in the history of assessment when it has been assumed that tests designed to evaluate the effectiveness of programs and schools can be used to make judgments about individual students. (Ways in which the purpose of an assessment should influence its design are discussed in Chapter 2 and more fully in Chapter 6.) At the same time, some educators also sought to use tests to equalize opportunity by opening up to individuals with high ability or achievement an educational system previously dominated by those with social connections— that is, to establish an educational meritocracy (Lemann, 1999). The achievement gaps that continue to persist suggest that the goal of equal educational opportunity has yet to be achieved.

Some aspects of current assessment systems are linked to earlier theories that assumed individuals have basically fixed dispositions to behave in certain ways across diverse situations. According to such a view, school achievement is perceived as a set of general proficiencies (e.g., mathematics ability) that remain relatively stable over situations and time.

Current assessments are also derived from early theories that characterize learning as a step-by-step accumulation of facts, procedures, definitions, and other discrete bits of knowledge and skill. Thus, the assessments tend to include items of factual and procedural knowledge that are relatively circumscribed in content and format and can be responded to in a short amount of time. These test items are typically treated as independent, discrete entities sampled from a larger universe of equally good questions. It is further assumed that these independent items can be accumulated or aggregated in various ways to produce overall scores.

Limitations of Current Assessments

The most common kinds of educational tests do a reasonable job with certain functions of testing, such as measuring knowledge of basic facts and procedures and producing overall estimates of proficiency for an area of the curriculum. But both their strengths and limitations are a product of their adherence to theories of learning and measurement that fail to capture the breadth and richness of knowledge and cognition. The limitations of these theories also compromise the usefulness of the assessments. The growing reliance on tests for making important decisions and for improving educational outcomes has called attention to some of their more serious limitations.

One set of concerns relates to whether the most widely used assessments effectively capture the kinds of complex knowledge and skills that are emphasized in contemporary standards and deemed essential for suc-

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement