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The Debate Over Assessing Student Performance

A week ago, the Department of Education announced that as part of its Race to the Top initiative, it had set aside $350 million for states to join form groups that would explore the "next generation of assessments"—essentially redesigning standardized tests so that they are more effective at determining "what students know and can do."  

The experts at The National Journal's "Education Experts"-blog have taken up this topic this week. Among the many interesting points made in the 10-person debate (thus far) are: A teachers' union board member (unsurprisingly) lamented the discounting of a teacher's professional judgement in the assessment equation. Multiple people noted that the tests should be used to evaluate a student's familiarity and faculty with the material and not as a basis to make critical decisions about the quality of instruction or schools as a whole.

There were two ideas that piqued my interest: One came from Tom Vander Ark, the businessman who once served as the original executive director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He suggests using online "widgets" and gaming applications to make assessment continuous and (gasp!) maybe even fun. It would also offer instant feedback.

Finally, George Wood, an Ohio high school principal and executive director of The Forum for Education and Democracy, brought up a point that I'd been wondering for a while now: Don't AP exams get at the sort of rich assessment we desire here? Can they serve as templates? He writes:

We have plenty of experience, both here and abroad, with assessment systems that rely upon actual student performance and that produce both reliable and verifiable results. The Advanced Placement examination, graded by teams of teachers is one such example. And the work in nations such as Finland and Australia to administer large-scale performance-based assessments is another.

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