Experimenting with Assessment

MPS School Says ‘No’ to Standardized Tests

By Barbara Miner

It’s Monday morning in Lisa Trewyn’s class, and her fourth grade students at Garfield Elementary School in Milwaukee are bringing in their latest “box project.” Using everything from match boxes to shoe boxes to banana boxes, students have designed and created something.

Maybe it’s a lawn mower, maybe it’s a phone booth, a doll house, gas station, eagle, pickle factory, bird feeder, VCR, or underwater ocean scene.

The kids will explain to the class how they thought of and made their project. The presentations are videotaped and shared with both parents and students. Trewyn also uses the videotape to evaluate the students’ presentation at a later time, free from the demands of the classroom.

“The kids love it,” Trewyn says of the box projects. “They are so enthused, and they encourage each other and compliment each other. Ideas are bouncing all over the place, and the next week something a little more developed will come in, and the next week something even better. I tell them that box projects are due and they’re cheering.”

Trewyn views the box project as more than a lesson in enthusiasm. She also uses it to gauge how well the students set and complete goals, use their imagination, make choices, overcome frustrations or lack of supplies, use math skills and science tools to assemble the project, and use oral skills to explain their creation.

The project and the evaluation, including the videotape, will be used to help measure a student’s progress, much as standardized tests or multiple-choice quizzes are used at many schools.

Trewyn’s approach is part of an ambitious experiment at Garfield to implement what is generally referred to as “authentic assessment.” Teachers at Garfield adopted the new assessment after years of frustration with the biases and limitations of standardized tests, a frustration shared by many educators across the country. Milwaukee Public Schools granted the school a temporary waiver from giving selected standardized tests, on the condition that Garfield create alternative assessments that will be evaluated for possible use throughout the system.

The goal at Garfield is to present students with real-life learning problems and situations, assessed through a range of procedures including videotapes, writing samples, observations by the teacher, and self evaluation.

“You don’t always get a multiple-choice test in real life,” said Sharon Zagorski, the math resource teacher who chairs the school’s Assessment Committee. “In real life, you have to think, you have to cooperate, you have to make decisions. You can’t just fill in the blanks or mark an X in a box.”

A kindergarten through fifth grade school in Milwaukee’s central city, Garfield has approximately 450 students. It is a specialty school with a math-science focus, and students attend from across the city. Approximately 65% of the students are children of color, in particular African Americans, and 62% of the students qualify for free lunches based on their families’ income.

Garfield has long been in the forefront of educational reforms in Milwaukee. Five years ago it became one of 10 pilot schools in the system to experiment with site-based management. Teachers also took part in a pilot program using the whole language approach to reading and writing, which emphasizes real-life reading and writing over worksheets and fill-in-the-blank exercises. Teachers also experimented with new forms of teaching math and science and encouraged the children to work together.

“We stressed having the children work in cooperative groups, but we were rated on how well students did independently on standardized tests,” said principal Kery Kafka. “We replaced basal readers and workbooks with

quality literature and children’s writing, but we were rated on how well the children filled in circles on tests. We were becoming schizophrenic.”

Problems with Standardized Tests

Garfield teachers were familiar with documented complaints about standardized tests: that they were biased against poor children, children of color, and girls, and that they emphasized discrete facts rather than a student’s ability to think, read, and write meaningfully.

After more than a year of preparation, Garfield’s new assessment started in the fall of 1991. As part of the assessment, each child develops a portfolio with writing samples, reading verifications, oral language samples, and evaluations based on lists of abilities the children are expected to master. The portfolio also contains notes about parent conferences, anecdotal records, and examples of classroom work such as journal entries, art work, photos and videotapes. The student portfolios are started in three-year-old kindergarten and follow the student from grade to grade and school to school.

The staff also developed a list of six peformance-based categories they expect the children to master. These categories are: communication, cognitive, physical, creative/aesthetic, social/emotional, and citizenship. Each category has subcategories, and each subcategory has a list of criteria to measure progress.

There are still report cards, but the usual A, B, C, D and Fs have been replaced with three categories: Excellent Progress, Adequate Progress, and Some Progress. The report card includes evaluations of traditional areas such as Social Studies, Language Arts, Science and Math, and the six performance-based categories.

“We may not want to do standardized testing, but we do want to be held accountable for how our children learn,” Kafka said Garfield began organizing for a new assessment in the summer of 1990, when teachers, administrators, and parents met informally over breakfast. At the time, they thought they merely had to change the report card. They were wrong.

“We found out that we needed to agree on what we believed before we could make any progress,” Zagorski said. “So we put together a set of six beliefs about assessment.”

The first belief, for example, stresses that schools should teach students to be productive, satisfied, life-long learners. Another belief stresses that students have varying levels, and what is important is that each student makes progress.

Throughout the 1990-91 school year, the Assessment Committee continued to meet. What seemed like straight-forward tasks involved seemingly endless discussion. The committee broke into subcommittees, and one meeting always led to another. One of the key issues was defining the six categories of abilities and then figuring out how to objectively measure those abilities.

Progress Continues

Progress, although slow, continued. By the end of the school year, the committee had developed not only the report card, but the checklist of abilities and the criteria for the students’ portfolios.

Having the new structures in place was not enough, however. There was also the MPS administration to contend with.

Wisconsin state law requires an assessment in reading and math, but Garfield teachers pointed out it didn’t have to be a standardized testing assessment. After many discussions and much-needed support from some reform-minded administrators, Garfield received a special waiver so it didn’t have to give the standardized Iowa Test of Basic Skills in 2nd and 5th grade. The school, however, gives the system-wide 3rd grade reading test,

which teachers consider a better tool for assessing reading strengths and weaknesses. The selections, for example, are significantly longer than on most standardized tests. The school also requires writing samples from all students in 4th and 5th grades, another system-wide practice.

While curriculum reform in MPS schools has primarily concentrated on changes in what is taught and how (see Rethinking Schools, Vol. 6 #2), Garfield teachers stress that curriculum changes cannot be separated from assessment. In fact, according to Kafka, changing the assessment has been the driving force behind changes in teaching.

“Most models say that you change the teaching behavior, and then all sorts of wonderful things will happen,” Kafka said. “But we found that by changing the assessment, teachers were forced to change what they did because they had to document all these behaviors they said they believed in, like cooperating in a group and completing a task. It was the assessment that changed the teaching. I’m not sure that will be the way it will happen elsewhere, but t g here.”

Unresolved Problems

Perhaps the biggest lesson is that each solution presents a new problem.

For example, the new report card — a solution to the limited report card used in most Milwaukee Public Schools — has spawned questions about both the terms used (Excellent Progress, Adequate Progress, and Some Progress) and how those terms are defined.

“How do you define progress?” Kafka asked. “And what does adequate mean? Is that bad or good?” As a result, Garfield teachers are developing new categories for the report card.

There’s also the problem of what to do with all the materials collected. “We now have in every classroom various filing systems, portfolio systems, and boxes where teachers have placed writing samples, projects, and videos,” Kafka said. “I have some teachers saying, ‘It is February and if I keep collecting at the rate I am, I will have to move out of my room.’”

One of the most troublesome questions involves the politics of education reform. Garfield has embarked on its experiment at a time when there are two competing approaches nationwide in the area of student assessment. One approach calls for more of the same: traditional, standardized tests. The other approach emphasizes performance-based assessment, such as at Garfield.

Kafka said Garfield’s assessment scores high in the essential areas of feedback to the student and having the curriculum and assessment work together to ensure that a child is learning. Arriving at common standards for authentic assessment so that schools and districts can be easily compared is a still-evolving process. “It’s another piece we’re working on, but we don’t have the complete answer yet,” said Kafka. In this regard, officials at MPS are closely looking at states such as Vermont, Connecticut, and California, which are institutionalizing portfolio-based assessment.

Another key lesson was that parental involvement is essential. Parents were involved from the outset at Garfield, and the school held several parent meetings to explain the new assessment. Although some parents said they felt the change was too abrupt, the majority have been supportive.

“I had parents tell me after the new report card, ‘You’ve read my kid perfectly,’” said 4th grade teacher Trewyn.