WASHINGTON — One victim of Gov. George Deukmejian's recent budget blue-lining was the California Assessment Program, an innovative approach to gauging student and school progress. Its loss may be felt even more across the nation than in California.
The program serves as a national model because it involves a statewide switch from the old, multiple-choice models of testing student knowledge to assessment of performance. California is the only large state with a policy of aligning what is taught in schools with how students and schools are assessed; the idea is to have teaching and assessment reinforce each other. Other states are developing similar programs, but California has led the way.
California's Department of Education, under Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, understands the relationship between what is taught and how it is assessed.
"One of the hallmarks of the effort to improve schools has been accountability," as Honig told The Times recently. The CAP tests, he said, "focus attention on where schools needed improvement. Without it, you're flying blind."
Educational assessment is too often regarded as a psychometric issue--a matter of numbers and statistics. But how we measure is how we teach. Test by multiple-choice and you get multiple-choice teaching: Strings of facts unconnected to ideas memorized only until the test and immediately forgotten.
CAP recognized the need to change testing as the California curriculum guidelines and framework emerged in the middle-1980s. The first CAP writing assessments were introduced in 1985 and 1986. In 1989 the state's Education Summit adopted a policy condemning multiple-choice tests for their "deleterious effect on the educational process."
Michael Kirst, a Stanford professor of education and former president of the State Board of Education, said recently that the old tests "tended to produce a Lake Wobegon effect--all the children in every school district turned out to be above average."
Under CAP assessments, teaching is influenced in the direction of concepts, problem-solving, thinking--the goals of California's curriculum frameworks. The test-publishing industry has people so brainwashed that the public believes only so-called "objective tests" can give an accurate picture of student achievement. But CAP has proved them wrong.
CAP writing and mathematics assessments are graded by groups of teachers. Experts perform the statistical manipulations that translate raw scores into scaled scores, weighted for the relative difficulty of each assignment, and report the scores on the scale already established for other CAP tests. The program's methods are validated by some of the most reputable U.S. psychometricians, acting as consultants to the CAP director and staff.
The CAP writing assessment has changed the way writing is taught in California schools. Standard writing assignments used to be corrected for grammar, usage and spelling. Now California students are prepared for the grades 8 and 12 CAP writing assessment by practicing many different kinds of real-world writing: reports, evaluations, solutions to problems, speculation about causes and effects, observations, interpretations and discussions of a controversial issues, among others.
The writing program is structured so that a student has an equal chance of being asked to write on any of 45 topics in these writing modes. It is that feature--the impossibility of predicting what kind of writing any student will be asked to produce--that gives the writing assessment its power in supporting the writing curriculum. From the teacher's point of view, the curriculum and the assessment both require the teaching of all the kinds of writing: Preparation for the assessment is also good teaching. The combination of curriculum and assessment has had greater impact on instruction statewide than any other program.
In an evaluation of the writing assessment, the Center for the Study of Writing found that 94% of California teachers assigned a greater variety of writing tasks than they did before the assessment, and 78% said they assigned more writing. In one year alone, the percentage of students who wrote 11 or more papers in a six-week period jumped from 22% to 33%.
CAP began to work toward a similar effect in mathematics with the first open-ended mathematics questions in the grade-12 assessment in 1988. These questions ask students not to remember an algorithm and pick out its correct use, but to describe or explain their answer to a real-life problem. This year, CAP piloted assessments in grade-6 science that asked students to design and carry out an experiment. The history and social-studies assessments, in the development stage, ask students to apply knowledge about a historical situation to a parallel in another time and culture.