Monday, May 08, 2006

Teacher Watch--Formative Assessment Agenda

Recent public outrage over scoring errors in the SAT and California High School Exit Exam (HSEE) has again inflamed national, if temporary, questions about high-stakes benchmark testing--and the unregulated corporations which create and adminster such programs, at the state and national level. Part of the concern is that many test corporations subsist on continuous public funding for each trial, error and profit.

But as eggregious as these momentary scandals may seem to parents, students and teachers, it's important to keep in mind that corporations such as Harcourt and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) have long shifted their eyes to something much more lucrative, long-term and mostly unquestioned: formative assessments.

Roughly, as teachers already know, "formative assessments" are seen as practice tools to prepare students to succeed on high-stakes, benchmark tests that occur perhaps once or twice a year. High-stakes benchmarks at the state level, such as the CAT-6 in California, are used to determine rankings of Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Such results can affect funding for schools, not to mention the real-estate rates in your neighborhood. National high-stakes benchmark tests include the PSAT and new SAT test, which affect student entry into colleges and universities, and can also affect individual student options for scholarships and other funding.

By comparison, "formative" test sounds kinder and gentler--it's just like studying, right?

As articulated by CEOs at the 2005 Association of Test Publishers "Innovations in Testing" Conference, what test publishers mean by "formative assessment" is literally constant assessment. Via tools such as remote control, internet question banks and automated, instant online grading software programs, the formative assessment agenda seeks to break down barriers between "testing" and "curriculum" so that they literally mean the same thing. The buzzphrase for this is "integrated" testing.

The argument, of course, is that teachers are always preparing students for tests anyway, so more automated and standardized formative practice would simply make the whole process user-friendly for everyone.

Two months ago, ETS acquired the assets of Assessment Training Institute (ATI), a Portland Oregon company which specializes in integrating assessment with day-to-day instruction. In an official press release dated March 8 2006, John Oswald, ETS Senior Vice President of Elementary and Secondary Education, says, "ATI's people and products will broaden ETS's educational solutions, including minute-to-minute assessment for learning in the classroom, periodic benchmark testing to validate and adjust instruction, and high-stakes summative state assessments."

Richard (no relation to Henry) Higgins, CEO of ATI, calls the approach "assessment FOR learning." You can read the entire press release here.

The key is that big-money testers know how to diversify their portfolio. Corporations such as ETS are already planning creative recovery from possible fallout over inevitable, isolated squabbles over a few high-stakes tests.

If George Orwell were still alive, he'd repeat that the domestic counterpart to a state of chronic war with an enemy somewhere else is a state of chronic surveillance at home. In the next generation, unless we resist, compulsory schools will be the primary (and invisible) front for this battle.