Testing Student Learning, Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness
reviewed by Rubén O. Martínez - 2005
Title: Testing Student Learning, Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness
Author(s): W.M. Evers and H. J. Walberg (eds.)
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford
ISBN: 0817929827, Pages: 337, Year: 2004
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As the title denotes, this book focuses on testing student learning and evaluating teaching effectiveness, both highly controversial matters in the country today. The book stems from the symposium “Testing America’s Schoolchildren” held at the Hoover Institution in October, 1998. It contains papers invited for the volume, presented at the symposium, and updated (somewhat) for the publication, including one by Herbert Walberg, a co-editor. It also contains three previously published articles to round out the book, which overall presents a tightly woven set of arguments in favor of standardized testing as the primary form of performance accountability in the nation’s schools. The collection as a whole also presents the constructivist model of learning as weak in teaching (experiential, problem solving, and cooperative learning emphases), performance testing (portfolio assessments), and in improving the educational outcomes of the nation’s students.
According to Walberg objective testing, along with other indicators of performance, is useful in evaluating educational performance across a range of relevant dimensions, including market-based solutions that offer choices to the public. Indeed, the editors of the volume promote public-choice and privatization of educational public services as means for improving the outcomes of American schooling. They are both recognized leaders in education here and abroad. Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, serves on the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars, and served as senior advisor on education to Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He has published extensively in the area of school accountability and been active in leading and contributing to California’s statewide testing system.
Walberg is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has written and edited more than fifty-five books on psychology and educational practices. He is founding fellow and Vice President of the International Academy of Education, located in Brussels, and editor of its booklet series on effective educational practices that is distributed by UNESCO. The volume by these gentlemen reflects their vast experience in educational accountability and their preferences for improving education both here and abroad.
The volume consists of an introduction and four parts, which include two or three entries each, followed by the agenda for the 1998 symposium, a list of contributors, and an index. Part One sets the context for examining educational productivity. Part Two examines the constructive uses of tests in assessment, and Part Three promotes performance assessment for accountability. The volume concludes with Part Four, which provides two case studies of state testing policies. The first seeks to cull the lessons learned from “Kentucky’s failed accountability system,” and the second presents the “Texas success story” in school testing. Overall, the framework for the volume is based on the following mix of generalizations and normative postulates: 1) international comparisons of student performance show America’s education system is slipping in relation to other industrialized countries; 2) special interests in education, such as teacher unions and proponents of bilingual education, are expensive and relatively non-productive; 3) competition in the education sector improves student performance outcomes as measured by standardized tests; and 4) parents desire and ought to have choices in education for their children.
Evers and Walberg provide a useful introduction for the volume and lay out the framework described above. Walberg provides a more detailed discussion of the issues in Chapter One, entitled “Examinations for Educational Productivity.” In the next chapter, “Why Testing Experts Hate Testing,” Richard Phelps reviews and critiques a litany of positions taken by opponents of standardized, high stakes testing, and concludes that the improvement of standardized testing in our schools will have to be done without constructivists, who are seen as opposed to standardized tests on ideological grounds. Barbara R. Foorman, Jack M. Fletcher, and David J. Francis begin Part Two with their chapter, “Early Reading Assessment.” These authors also make the case for standardized testing, especially in the assessment of early reading skills, but they do so without the heavy ideological tone that characterizes the rest of the volume. Their promotion of early assessment emphasizes screening, diagnosis, monitoring, and performance outcomes.
In Chapter Four, “Science and Math Testing, What’s Right and Wrong with the NAEP and the TIMSS,” Stan Metzenberg picks up the aggressive tone against constructivist teaching and advocates the redesign of standardized tests such as the NAEP, which he claims emphasizes modes of inquiry and conceptual understanding at the expense of mathematical content and skills, to increase their validity. In Chapter Five, “Telling Lessons from the TIMSS Videotape: Remarkable Teaching Practices as Recorded from Eighth-Grade Mathematics Classes in Japan, Germany, and the United States,” Alan R. Siegel not only presents the longest chapter title in the volume but also makes the case that Japanese pedagogical styles are less cooperative and discovery centered, and more lecture centered than constructivists claim. Using video excerpts from the TIMSS videotape kit Siegel makes the case that Japanese instructors blend interactive lectures with proof-based reasoning to engage students in problem solving activities.
Brian Stecher starts out Part Three with a chapter titled “Portolio Assessment and Education Reform.” Given what has been described above, the reader can quickly deduce that Stecher takes a strong position against portfolio assessments of student academic performance. These types of assessments, he argues, lack validity and reliability and are costly both in training teachers and in the consumption of teachers’ work time. Chapter Seven, titled “Portfolio Assessment and Education Reform,” is by William Mehrens, who promotes the use of and the continued improvement and refinement of performance assessment for accountability purposes in education. Although performance assessment may have more trouble than multiple choice tests in meeting the criteria for accountability, which include administrative feasibility, professional credibility, public acceptance, legal defensibility, and economic affordability, measurement experts, he says, should pursue improvements.
Part Four includes the chapters on Kentucky and Texas. George K. Cunningham, in Chapter Eight, “Learning from Kentucky’s Failed Accountability System,” takes the position that failure stems from an assessment system based on performance tasks and portfolios, rather than on standardized tests. In Chapter Nine, Darvin Winick and Sandy Kress take the view that “Accountability Works in Texas.” They provide a brief overview of the development of a standards-based accountability system, and they claim that it is working and that national test results suggest that Texas public school students perform better than students from other states. Ignored are some other established facts: 1) eighth graders perform poorly on national assessments in science and math (the general outcome having been used earlier in the volume against constructivists); 2) low-income eighth graders perform very poorly on national assessments; and 3) Texas is one of the states with the lowest percentage of young adults with a high school credential (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2004).
Overall, this volume makes a strong case for standardized testing. It raises critical issues and provides some limited evidence to support the use of standardized tests for assessment purposes. Clearly the authors are passionate about their views and about improving the nation’s educational performance levels. In many ways, however, the volume reflects a conservative ideological orientation that uses the trappings of science to make its case in favor of standardized objective testing for purposes of accountability. Like other scholars who take normative stances, the authors tend to overlook research findings and issues, including the high costs of standardized testing, that run counter to or undermine their views, and to present the other side in negative archetypal images. At times, the political spin ignores other aspects of reality that are at play in education. These include structured inequalities such as inequities in school financing, poverty, discrimination, and cultural domination. When the structural inequalities are directly addressed, and market forces are no longer seen as the panacea for all of education’s ills, the nation may indeed make greater improvements in educational outcomes.
National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. 2004. Measuring Up 2004: The State Report Card on Higher Education, Texas. Report # 04-4. Available on-line at: http://www.highereducation.org .