ALTERNATIVE ASSESSMENTS: PROMISES AND PROBLEMS FOR HOME-BASED EDUCATION POLICY
Gregory J. Cizek
Assistant Professor of Educational Research and Measurement
University of Toledo
Toledo, Ohio 43606
Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, assessment
The past two decades have witnessed an amazing proliferation of alternative educational options. Magnet schools, single-sex schools, ethnic academies, choice programs, public, private; as a nation, we seem willing to try almost anything that will improve the woeful state of American education. Indisputably, one alternative gaining increasing popularity is home education (Adams, 1984; Allis, 1990; Divoky, 1983; Feinstein, 1988; Kohn, 1988).
Previous research has examined the growth of home education (Carper, 1990; Klicka, 1988a; Pitman, 1986; Ray, 1989a) the international aspects of home education (Common & MacMullen, 1986); the reasons people choose to home school (Gustafson, 1988; Guterson, 1990; Knowles, 1989a; Resetar, 1990) the characteristics of those who choose home education (Lines, 1991; Mayberry, 1989, 1991; Ray, 1989b; Van Galen, 1989) the academic and social outcomes of home education (Delahooke, 1986; Ray, 1989b; Taylor, 1986; Walsh, 1991; Williams, 1990; 1991) and the legal aspects of home instruction (Staver, 1987; Whitehead & Bird, 1984; Yastrow, 1990; Zirkel, 1986; 1988; 1990).
Concurrently, as a nation, we have become obsessed with measuring academic achievement. Private corporations, national agencies, and state level bureaus have developed a fresh enthusiasm for the assessment of learning, instruction, and school effectiveness. We are keenly concerned about educational “outputs”; about the academic “bottom line,” to borrow an economic conception (Levin, 1978).
In the United States, judgments regarding educational progress and evaluations of instructional effectiveness have traditionally been aided by the use of tests. It has been, in a sense, customary to assess educational outcomes with these instruments. The trend toward increased promotion of testing and toward increased use by educational policy makers of the data yielded by tests has long been apparent. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn described the shift:
“The enterprise of education will be defined entirely by actual learning accomplished and accounted for. Indeed, no ‘education’ will have taken place unless there is evidence that learning occurred” (Rothman, 1989, p. 12).
Recently a noticeable trend has also become apparent in the manner in which educational assessment is occurring. Educators are wholeheartedly embracing alternatives to the traditional forms of measuring student achievement. What are now commonly called “performance assessments” (a.k.a., genuine assessments, authentic assessments, direct assessments, etc.) are the avant garde assessment option. A variety of alternative assessments are being developed, in-service seminars are being planned, and the testing industry is scrambling to retool its products to meet the demand. American education is unequivocally rejecting the traditional and irresistibly adopting the alternatives.
What are “Performance Assessments”?
Clearly the move toward increased use of performance assessments is motivated by many, complex factors. At least one of these factors seems to be a reaction to the traditional format for assessing educational achievementCmultiple-choice testing. The oft-repeated untoward characteristics of poorly-constructed multiple-choice tests are now familiar to most educators: The tests sometimes require only lower-order thinking skills; they can induce teaching to the “lowest common denominator;” they fail to assess all the important and desirable educational outcomes; they often consume a significant amount of instructional time; they are susceptible to “teaching to the test,” and they can be used and interpreted improperly. (These characteristics and criticisms are described in detail elsewhere. See, for example, Cannell, 1989; Fredericksen, 1984; Geiger, 1991; Haas, Haladyna, & Nolen, 1990; Kellaghan, Madaus, & Airasian, 1982; Madaus, 1988; Rottenberg & Smith, 1990; Wiggins, 1989.)
In many instances, these charges are, of course, true. Multiple-choice tests do have several well-known shortcomings which have been recognized for some time. In other cases, the charges are false. There are also a wealth of examples of high-quality, educationally-informative, and useful multiple-choice tests. On balance, multiple-choice testing isClike many thingsCa mixed bag, with positive and negative aspects (Worthen & Spandel, 1991).
So, what is performance assessment and what does it mean to home educators? Performance assessments are active, direct observations of what a student knows or can do. Performance assessments include projects, portfolios, speeches, essays, oral reports, demonstrations, experiments, and other observable student “exhibitions” (Sizer, 1992).
Airasian (1991) defines performance assessment as “assessments in which the teacher observes and makes a judgment about a pupil’s skill in carrying out an activity or producing a product” (p. 252). On the surface, this definition may not seem to deviate substantially from traditional definitions of what a test is (e.g., “the systematic sampling of behavior under controlled conditions”). But the difference between these definitions may be the essence of what is definitive: The former definition explicitly involves the teacher’s observations and judgment; the latter does not. Gene Maeroff, speaking to the issue of performance assessment, capturedCperhaps unknowinglyCthe essence of why performance assessments have become so popular among teachers:
thumbing through a portfolio with a student or watching a student perform a task–whatever the psychometric worth of such assessments–adds a degree of intimacy that can be refreshing in an age of depersonalized appraisal (1991, p. 281).
Psychometricians and educational policy specialists have already begun to debate the worth of performance assessments. Many logistic and interpretive concerns remain to be resolved, but all agree that performance assessment is here to stay. However, the move toward reliance on performance assessments to measure and compare academic achievement and away from traditional standardized tests of academic achievement has important policy implications for the evaluation of home-based educational programs.
The Monitoring Role of Assessment
In order to understand the implications that a policy of alternative assessment might have for home education, it is useful to begin with a review of the function of assessment generally. The function of assessment is directly related to the reason we, as a society, have schools and to the reason that we require children to attend them.
The courts have rightly perceived that compulsory attendance laws were enacted to insure that every child would be compelled to attend school, not to insure that they attend a particular type of school. (Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, 1925; Wisconsin v. Yoder, 1972;). However, the courts have refused to mandate more than a reasonable opportunity to be exposed to some instruction; they have stopped short of guaranteeing a specified level of achievement or result (Board of Education v. Rowley, 1982; San Antonio Independent School District et al. v. Rodriguez et al., 1972).
It appears to be beyond question, however, that the responsibility for decisions regarding the course of a child’s education rests squarely with the parents. It is also widely accepted that parents do not have total freedom to exercise any educational option, (e.g., the choosing of no education). Increasingly, parents are being afforded substantial freedom to choose home education (Richman & Richman, 1988; Woltman, 1989). Parents are also increasingly being held accountable for providing adequate instruction. As Resnick and Resnick have noted, historically, the “overriding role of educational testing has been to serve purposes of public accountability, program evaluation, and institutional comparison” (1985, p. 11).
In permitting home education, it is typical for states to specify some safeguards; for example, requiring the parent to be a certified teacher or requiring the parent to accept a greater degree of state monitoring (e.g., submit a proposed curriculum for state approval, follow a curriculum comparable to that of the public schools, certify that the student will attend a certain number of days or hours of instruction). The most widely utilized type of monitoring of home-based programs utilizes assessment. Tests have often become the method of choice for determining both the parents’ ability to teach (cf., Carson & Coyle, 1989; Rothman, 1992) and the amount of learning that occurs (Walsh, 1991).
What Kind of Assessments?
For many years, the most commonly employed assessments used to evaluate the appropriateness of home-based educational programs have consisted primarily of large scale, standardized, multiple-choice assessments. Frequently, in the judicial battles waged over the permissibility of home education and the struggles to monitor home-based education programs, outcomes are a fundamental and legitimate concern. Often, courts have taken note of test scores in determining their evaluations of home instruction and many states have mandated standardized tests for accountability (Klicka, 1988b). Admittedly, the propriety of such testing and use of test results is an underlying issue that has been questioned (Cizek, 1988). Nevertheless, standardized, multiple-choice testing has become the “customary” solution to the assessment problems associated with the burgeoning home schooling movement.
Currently, however, there is widespread concern about the use of standardized, multiple-choice tests as measures of academic achievement. Some educators have claimed that multiple-choice tests are actually harmful (Geiger, 1991: Neill & Medina, 1989) attributing all sorts of educational and societal problems on multiple-choice tests. One commentator actually wondered whether “the bland 1988 presidential campaign was perhaps a byproduct of 30 years of a [multiple-choice] system of testing” (Solomon, 1991). Another suggested that testing may have actually caused recent declines in educational achievement (Wiggins, 1990). Such criticisms are more policy rhetoric and hyperbole than substance. However, the growing sentiment is indisputably clear: Multiple-choice testing is out; alternative assessments are in.
Thus, as American education generally eschews standardized, multiple-choice testing and turns to alternatives such as performance assessment, significant policy concerns also arise. The rest of this paper introduces some of those concerns and suggests potential implications for home-based educational programs.
Concern 1 – What Outcomes Should Be Assessed?
Curriculum specialists are increasingly concerned with educational outcomes beyond the traditional emphases on the cognitive domain. One recent prediction regarding the kinds of educational outcomes that will be assessed is presented by Baker and Stites (1991). The Baker and Stites conceptualization is typical of more encompassing frameworks for assessment, recommending formal assessments of student affective characteristics and motivation, in which “students will need to demonstrate their commitment to tasks over time, their workforce readiness, [and] their social competence in team or group performance contexts” (p. 153). It is, however, precisely such broadened conceptualizations that may be difficult to implement in the context of home education. Such broadened notions of what will be assessed, going beyond traditionally-accepted cognitive educational outcomes may, or may not, prove acceptable when scrutinized by home educators.
Also at issue is the phenomenon of “measurement-driven instruction”:
the notion that the content of a test can often drive the content of the curriculum (Porter, 1978). High-stakes, mandated assessments can exert a powerful influence over curriculum (Madaus, 1988). Thus, it is likely that the decisions regarding what will be assessed will influence the content of home-based educational programs, too, with the accompanying potential curriculum-restricting effects. Because many home educators are known to choose that alternative precisely because of their desire to maintain a distinct curriculum, the influence of a new achievement monitoring system will surely cause significant policy concerns.
Assessment/curriculum mismatches are will also continue to be problematic. In an examination of traditional, standardized tests, Freeman, Kuhs, Knappen, and Porter (1979) found that “significant mismatches between the content of the classroom instruction and the content of a standardized test are likely” (p. 1). More recently, Haney observed the same mismatch:
“The prospects for finding a criterion-referenced test matched to what is taught in a particular class or school are perhaps better than those with regard to norm-referenced tests, but it seems almost inevitable that any externally developed test is going to have a fairly imperfect fit with the educational goals of a particular teacher or school” (1985, p. 5).
For home education programs, where curricular differences are likely to be substantial (Lines, 1987), matching of curricula and testing programs is an especially important policy consideration. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that the same curriculum/assessment mismatches already observed would not occurCor possibly occur to an even greater degreeCwith the new alternative assessments being widely adopted by the states. Indeed, there is strong evidence that the same kind of mismatches would be very likely to result. In practice, many home educators have been diligent to select monitoring instruments (when choice is permitted) that represent as close a match as possible to their instructional programs. It will undoubtedly become more difficult to ascertain and achieve a close match when new forms of assessments are used and changing outcomes are assessed.
In summary, the suggested reconceptualizations of assessment comprise considerably more than paper-and-pencil tests. The new conceptualizations assess much more and, importantly, different kinds, of educational achievement than the standardized, norm- and criterion-referenced tests that home educators have hesitatingly agreed to administer. Indeed, home educators have been particularly vocal in their desire to see any governmental monitoring of their programs be limited to “essential” or “basic” skills. Consequently, the adoption of new assessment strategies and goals has the potential to represent a substantially divisive force, disrupting the uneasy accords that have been reached between home schooling advocates and governmental authorities. Under a system of evaluating achievement using alternative assessments, it will, perhaps more than ever, be critical for parents and state education officials to carefully study the content of monitoring instruments and to help ensure that reasonable test-matching precedes test selection.
Concern 2 – How Should Outcomes be Assessed?
At least one reason why alternative assessments are being adopted as the assessment strategy of choice is because they are more “authentic” or direct (Wiggins, 1989). It seems intuitive that asking a student to do, to perform, to demonstrate, to show, or to exhibit his or her skill or knowledge is a much more direct method of determining if actual learning has occurred. Compared to the multiple-choice instrument, it could be said that the performance assessment requires a somewhat weaker inference about what the student’s behavior represents. Thus, performance tests not only have substantially more “face validity” than traditional forms of assessment, but also may yield more confidence about the true abilities of students.
Recently, however, assessment specialists have begun to argue that assessment must be conceived even more broadly than just formal “tests.” Airasian (1991) recommends that a more accurate portrayal of educational assessment would include the full range of sources and methods teachers use to gather, interpret, and synthesize information about students. The future of educational assessment is likely to include even more than an increased variety of assessment formats.
Already, substantially broadened conceptualizations of the very nature of testing are being proposed. Broadened conceptualizations of assessment can be found in Stiggins (1991a) and Ferrara and McTighe (in press). As mentioned above, the forms that alternative assessments will take are likely to vary considerably, including projects, portfolios, speeches, essays, oral reports, demonstrations, experiments, and other observable student behaviors. However, like the broadened conceptualizations of what should be assessed, the introduction of diverse strategies for how achievement should be assessed may represent a problematic issue for policy makers concerned with home education. Home educators may have reluctantly agreed to submit standardized achievement test scores for official review by public officials; they are likely to be even more reluctant to submit portfolios of work or present their students for oral interviews or other “exhibitions”. If such assessments are mandated, policies and procedures will need to be developed to assist home educators in learning how to design and develop portfolios, work samples, and other alternative measures of student achievement. Thus, not only the “what,” but also the “how” of alternative assessment reveals lurking questions regarding appropriate educational policy for monitoring home education.
Concern 3 – Who Should Interpret the
If alternative assessments are used to evaluate the quality of home-based educational programs, a finalCand criticalCquestion centers on who will interpret the results of the assessments.
It is clear that one reason many home educators choose that alternative is their view that parents are uniquely qualified to teach their own children. Unquestionably, compared to a typical public school teacher who interacts with 30 students for about 6 hours per day over 180 days, most parents do have a more extensive comprehension of their own children’s attitudes, abilities, aptitudes, motivations, previous experiences, strengths and weaknesses. Home educators have uniformly asserted that the context of the educational experience is important, if not equally as important to the education of the student, as is the content. Similarly, context is critical to the proper utilization and interpretation of assessment results.
For example, in a qualitative study of the effects of “high stakes” testing programs, Smith found that “numeric test scores mean little to the teachers we studied, particularly without the interpretive context that teachers alone possess” (1991, p. 9). Stiggins and Bridgeford sensed the alienation and disconnection from the assessment process that many public educators felt, and advocated “greater sensitivity to teachers’ needs on the part of the measurement community” (1985, p. 283). Surely, home educators share these desires to be intimately involved in the assessment process, especially as it includes the interpretation of test results.
To facilitate this involvement, two policies will require further examination. First, home educators may need to become much more familiar with the purposes and procedures of sound assessment practice. An increased knowledge of how best to assess whether learning has occurred would be advantageous even without the imminent changes in the types of assessment used. It has been reported, for example, that teachers spend as much as a third of their time gathering and interpreting information related to assessment (Stiggins & Conklin, 1988).
However, the training in assessment provided, even to certified teachers has been found to be terribly inadequate. Hills (1991) reviewed the state of training in educational measurement and found that “both teachers and administrators are woefully ignorant of sound assessment practices” (p. 540). Stiggins spread the problem across the board, calling Americans “a nation of assessment illiterates” (1991b, p. 535).
In contrast, the new alternative assessment strategies will place a considerable degree of responsibility on teachers, both to administer and interpret the assessments and to integrate assessment and assessment results into instructional practice. Teachers will be expected to incorporate assessment into the larger learning framework and, possibly, to provide evidence regarding how assessment information is used to inform and guide instruction for individual students.
Thus, education in alternative assessment strategies will be important for home educators. Some helpful guidelines do exist, such as the Standards for Teacher Competence in Educational Assessment of Students (American Federation of Teachers, National Council on Measurement in Education, & National Education Association, 1990). These guidelines may provide helpful insights to home educators regarding how important educational outcomes can be reliably assessed and cautions regarding the appropriate interpretations of assessment information.
The policy issues surrounding who should be involved in the interpretation of assessment information, however, might also represent a key area for increased home educator/public official communication and cooperation. Previously, other policy analysts have emphasized the importance of cooperation between these groups (Holt, 1983; Lines, 1985; Knowles, 1989b; National Association of State Boards of Education, 1988). In the area of assessment, and the interpretation and utilization of assessment data, cooperation and communication are surely vital concerns, and represent a possible outlet for increased cooperation to be expressed.
Concurrent trends toward increased participation in home-based educational programs and increased promotion of alternative formats and strategies for assessing educational achievement have yielded unforeseen difficulties for educational policy makers.
Some positive results will probably be realized from the introduction of divergent means of gathering information about student achievement. However, the move toward adoption of alternatives to traditional assessment practices is likely to have a profound effect on the status of home education.
Specific problems requiring further examination include analyses of the kind of assessments that are appropriate for home-based educational programs, the types of outcomes that are appropriately assessed, and how assessment results can appropriately be interpreted and evaluated when judgments about the quality and/or acceptability of home-based educational programs are to be made.
Wider use of newly developed assessments by home educators is likely, as the general education community increasingly accepts alternative assessment strategies and rejects traditional notions of educational achievement. However, the transition will undoubtedly lead to disagreements regarding which educational outcomes should be assessed, which assessments are appropriate for use in home-based programs and difficult policy decisions regarding who should select, interpret, and evaluate the results of those assessments. The implementation of alternative assessment formats and strategies will require not only increased assessment literacy on the part of home educators and but also increased cooperation between concerned groups.
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