Those of us who care about the future of public education in California have reason to rejoice. The state Department of Education is about to embark upon a reform that could promote a real transformation in California's public schools.
Before you can improve the quality of education you must have some consistent measure of improvement; you must be able to tell just how good current levels of performance are and how they compare with last year's. Hence, sound evaluation of student performance is the foundation for real educational reform or even improvement.
In California, the agency responsible for evaluating the performance of schools is the California Assessment Program. CAP administers tests statewide to students in grades 3, 6, 8 and 12. The purpose of these tests is not to evaluate the performance of individual students but to evaluate the performance of schools and school districts. So different students in the same grade may take different tests.
In the past, CAP has attempted to evaluate student skills in reading, writing and math using the familiar mutliple-choice, machine-graded test, similar in format and administration to the SAT and other standardized tests. Next year that will change. For the first time, every eighth-grader in California's public schools will write an essay as a part of the CAP test. And for the first time we will be able to evaluate the writing ability of California students on the basis of what they write. Novel idea, eh? The following year, the writing assessment will be extended to 12th grade.
Honest Assessment of Student Skills
There are two reasons why this change is so important. The first is that the new test is an honest assessment of the skills that are supposed to be evaluated. The 1983-84 CAP Annual Report put it this way: "Students' ability to compose a piece of well-written prose . . . obviously cannot be assessed with multiple-choice exercises, even though such exercises are related to the ability to write well." Doesn't that seem pretty obvious to you? It does to me. But a lot of educators have been awfully slow in realizing it.
There is another, and even more important, reason to rejoice. Remember, the CAP tests are used not to evaluate individual students but to evaluate the performance of schools. They form the basis of the "report cards" on schools which the Department of Education issues and now influence even the amount of revenue a given district receives from the state. Thus there is a great deal of pressure on schools and teachers to "teach to the test," to let the test determine the goals and set the priorities for teaching. This may be all to the good when the test is an honest evaluator of the skills that ought to be taught. But when the test imposes irrelevant or arbitrary standards the results are baneful. Beth Breneman, a CAP consultant, puts it succinctly: "Multiple-choice testing leads to multiple-choice teaching." Conversely, a test that evaluates student writing will encourage teachers to teach students to write.
In won't be easy, of course. Other states, including New York, use writing samples to assess student writing. But Dr. Pat Elias, director of Special Projects for the Educational Testing Service estimates that the California project is "the most innovative, creative, and largest-scale undertaking of its kind." ETS administered a pilot assessment this year which involved 31,000 eighth-grade students in 211 schools and 27,000 12th-grade students in 98 schools. Readers from California Writing Project evaluated the essays and will take a major role in training a larger body of readers for the full-scale assessment next year, when roughly a quarter of a million eighth graders will be tested. It's a big job, but it's worth the effort.