Uniform education standards seen timely

Could reform assessment of students

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The push by states to implement a “common core” of standards by 2014 presents an opportunity to revamp student assessment methods and correct problems that have plagued the system for the past decade, according to researchers.

Greater use of technology, more creative ways of teaching science and special attention to measuring students for whom English is a second language are critical in the next round of assessments, according to a new report released Monday from the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy and the Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonpartisan research center based at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Pencil-and-paper-based tests are not capable of measuring complex intellectual performances,” said Chris Dede, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Mr. Dede and his colleagues are developing ways to teach students “what scientists do” on a day-to-day basis, rather than asking them to memorize facts and formulas for a written exam each year. For example, he has helped develop a video-game-style teaching tool that requires students to collect information, formulate a hypothesis, come to a conclusion and back it up with facts.

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia will fully implement Common Core standards for the 2014-15 school year. The curricula, developed by educators in states across the country and coordinated by the National Governors Association, establish new standards in math, reading and other subjects.

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, states have been largely free to set up their own assessments and prepare their students accordingly. Many have criticized state standards because they are often not on par with national benchmarks set by the Department of Educations National Assessment of Education Program.

One problem with current state assessments is how English learners are measured, the report says. If they score poorly on assessments, it is too often unclear whether they don’t know the subject material or if they simply don’t know enough English to comprehend the questions, according to Robert Linquanti, a senior research with WestEd who worked on the Rennie/PACE report.

“We need to make sure they have the language skills to manifest [what they know],” he said Monday.

For those just beginning to learn English, Mr. Linquanti suggested schools consider giving assessment tests in a student’s primary language. Slightly more advanced learners could be given tests in their primary language and in English, creating a way for teachers to gauge what their students have learned, he said.

Whatever path states take with their assessments, technology will play a much greater role, said Mark Reckase, a professor at Michigan State University’s College of Education and co-author of the report.

Mr. Reckase said schools ought to consider moving away from pencils and paper altogether and administer tests with computers or other forms of technology, though he admitted funding will be a big hurdle.

The report also proposes “embedding assessment in instruction.” While current assessment systems often force teachers to prepare students for a few key tests, the next generation of assessments could allow teachers to measure student performance throughout the year and submit that data at year’s end, demonstrating student progress and giving instructors the time to fix what isn’t working.

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