The Assessment Bridge: Positive Ways to Link Tests to Learning, Standards, and Curriculum Improvement
reviewed by Marcy Bullmaster - 2003
Title: The Assessment Bridge: Positive Ways to Link Tests to Learning, Standards, and Curriculum Improvement
Author(s): Pearl G. Solomon
Publisher: Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks
ISBN: 0761945946, Pages: 160, Year: 2002
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Even in times of imminent war and economic peril, U.S. public education policy remains front-page, primetime news. Hardly a day passes in the nation without a major story about the sanctions and rewards to schools, educators, and students that are now familiar features of the standards-and-accountability policy landscape. Public discourse about high-stakes testing is often heated, with impassioned arguments on both sides as to whether such testing will widen or narrow the opportunity for all students to learn to high levels.
As her title indicates, The Assessment Bridge: Positive Ways to Link Tests to Learning, Standards, and Curriculum Improvement is Pearl G. Solomon’s effort to contribute a synthesis of action steps to the accountability debate. Accepting what she terms HSSB (high-stakes, standards-based) tests as a current reality with which educators must contend, Solomon presents a “vision of how distally produced tests, generated far from the students they measure, can fit into the overall role of assessment as a guide to instruction…[and] how schools and teachers can build their capacity to use high-stakes, standards-based tests, in conjunction with their own proximal classroom or locally developed measures, as a guideline for making needed changes in curriculum and instructional practices” (p. xii). She seeks to connect the dots on today’s school reform landscape, and these connections, taken together, constitute her “assessment bridge.”
Grounded in constructivist learning theory, in the literatures on school change and assessment, and in the historical context of U.S. education policy that spans the 20th century to the present, this work moves briskly across the standards and accountability terrain, addressing each of a wide range of factors that must move together in the same direction if the intentions of today’s reforms are to be realized. Because so much ground is covered so quickly, The Assessment Bridge does not contribute any startling new ideas to the substantial body of literature that already exists on educational change and school improvement.
Rather, the value of this 160-page work lies in its anecdotal accounts of applied tenets of school reform. Solomon shows us what many popularly cited reform principles and theories have looked like in her own practice. Her personal experiences over many years – as student, teacher, suburban school administrator, and teacher educator – provide the lens through which she examines the interlocking aspects of schooling that together build the assessment bridge. School culture, curriculum, teaching, learning, assessment, school leadership, and the process of school change and renewal are all considered in terms of how they are impacted by the HSSB tests and the state and federal policies supporting these tests.
In Chapter One, “Defining the Problem: The Historical Context,” Solomon observes that historically in times of peace and stability the public education system has not come under the same degree of negative scrutiny as it does when there is fear that our youth will not be prepared to protect our future, as is the case today. The “problem” that she identifies has to do with cultural gaps. She posits, “Education is about transmitting the culture. Public education in this country is also about closing cultural gaps – gaps that many fear as potential sources of human conflict” (p. 2). Situating her reflections in the present social context marked by terrorist attacks, the threat of war, and, in the schools, the persistent and pronounced achievement gap between White/Asian and African American/Latino students, Solomon points out that these are the gaps that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 and its attendant HSSB tests are intended to bridge, even as they pose more difficulties than they ameliorate.
Walking us through the historical context as she herself lived it from a rural one-room schoolhouse in the 1930’s to depression-era factory-model schools in New York City, a progressive experimental school, a large urban high school, and finally to a career in teaching and administration, Solomon notes that through the 20th century, curriculum and assessment were locally owned by schools and teachers. Standardized assessments like IQ tests and norm-referenced achievement tests were used only to sort and group students within a school “with little attention to using [them] to inform instruction for individuals or as a guide for reconstructing school curriculum” (p. 17).
Chapter Two, “Schools at the Beginning of the 21st Century: Problems and Proposed Solutions,” brings the discussion into the present with an examination of five approaches propounded as answers to the cultural gaps/achievement gap problem: defining educational standards; school accountability; achieving equity through school choice; extending time for schooling; and technology in the classroom. From this look at solutions proffered by others, Solomon moves on, in Chapter Three, “Taking the First Steps Toward Productive Change,” to propose her own synthesized plan, drawing on effective elements tried by others but reflecting insights gained through her own experience.
Building the assessment bridge, according to Solomon, entails four steps. The first three are building new capacity; generating ownership; and assuming leadership. The last step, providing time for learning and change, is particularly crucial.
The need for time for professional development to prepare teachers for HSSB tests cannot be underestimated. In their anxiety for a quick fix for the nation’s schools, our leaders may have overlooked a significant variable of change. A sufficient time period for re-culturization and assumption of ownership of higher and common standards before the testing began might have eliminated unnecessary stress on our humanly sensitive systems of education (p. 53).
Chapter Four, “The Assessment Roadway: How Tests Tell Us What to Do,” is the heart of the book in that here Solomon offers practical suggestions for utilizing HSSB tests, as one important measure among several, to enrich curricula and instruction rather than to narrow them. She discusses ways to use rubrics in formative and summative assessment, and ways to disaggregate and learn from HSSB test data. She proposes that HSSB test tasks be analyzed for their embedded concepts, and curriculum intentionally aligned to ensure that those concepts are taught and assessed in classroom-based tests. Recounting her own work to engage teachers in HSSB test analysis, Solomon notes,
There are significant indications of decreased resistance to the HSSB tests as teachers begin to see the assessment less as an imposed and threatening addition to their curriculum and more as a design or planning guide – with greater attention to the underlying conceptual knowledge and with space for some autonomy over how it gets accomplished (p. 71).
How to go about aligning curriculum to the concepts embedded in HSSB tests is further elaborated in Chapter Five: “Responding to High-Stakes, Standards-Based (HSSB) Tests: Restructuring Curriculum.” Solomon presents two alternative design processes, each of which can bring teachers into the assessment process, create ownership, and ease anxiety in relation to HSSB tests. Both of her proposed approaches involve helping students develop concepts over time, while teaching with test-like tasks closer to the HSSB test, echoing Popham’s (2001) distinction between “curriculum teaching” and “item teaching.” Solomon’s first suggested process begins with the HSSB tests, identifying embedded concepts, including these concepts in the curriculum, and creating formative classroom-based assessments to measure them, while her second design begins with the state learning standards on which HSSB tests are based, and builds from those.
The sophisticated professional activities described in Chapters Four and Five require a talented, well-prepared teaching force, so in Chapter Six, “Building a Cohort of the Best Teachers: Recruitment, Engagement, Nurturance,” Solomon presents a model of best practices for strengthening all phases of the teaching career. All of her suggestions, which include teacher networks and professional development school arrangements between teacher educators and schools, reflect her constructivist base and are supported by examples from her own experience. Because learning is active, problem based, and socially mediated, teachers, like students, must engage in activities that cause them to “grapple with what broad principles look like in practice” (p. 123). Solomon sees analyzing what HSSB tests require of students and developing instructional activities to support student achievement as problem-solving activities best done by teachers in collaboration with each other over time.
Finally, building the assessment bridge requires the steady, forward-moving influence of effective leadership. Solomon concludes her discussion in Chapter Seven, “Searching for Leadership,” by examining ways in which power, sanctions, rewards, and direct and indirect messages can be skillfully blended in leadership by administrators and by teachers to obtain a coherent, cohesive framework of curriculum, instruction, and assessment within a school or a district. Again, Solomon’s reflections on her own experiences as curriculum coordinator, middle school principal, and director of curriculum are the basis for her observations and opinions.
In 1996 the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future wrote,
Most schools and teachers cannot produce the kind of learning demanded by the new reforms – not because they do not want to, but because they do not know how, and the systems in which they work do not support them in doing so (p. 5).
The Assessment Bridge is one educator’s experience-based view of the “how” – of what it takes to realize the vision of teaching all students to high standards. This book can serve as a starting point for thoughtful discussion among any group of educators who are actively involved in making sense and making the best of the inherent contradictions within today’s assessment reform agenda.
National Commmission on Teaching & America’s Future. (1996). What matters most: Teaching for America’s future. New York: Author.
Popham, W.J. (2001). Teaching to the test. Educational Leadership, 58 (6), 16-20.