Sherman Dorn is a Professor of Education and an historian at the University of South Florida. His published work has included histories of debates over dropping out, dropout policies, special education, funding equalization in Florida, and high-stakes accountability.
Principals are more likely to keep their faculty focused on student learning if they can shift the everyday conversation in their schools away from assessment as testing students and towards talking about assessment as testing instructional decisions. It is very hard to change our historical uses of “student testing,” but principals have the power to do so in their own schools.
Most principals are aware of the general history of testing in the U.S. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, the standardized testing industry developed along with tracking and school bureaucracies (Tyack, 1974). The growth of testing involved both subject-specific tests and the new so-called IQ tests; schools used both types of tests to limit opportunities for students (Dorn, 2007; Mazzeo, 2001). As Daniel Calhoun (1973) noted, school bureaucracies have used student testing to shift responsibility from schools to students.
I have been critical of high-stakes testing in both Accountability Frankenstein (2007) and One-Blog Schoolhouse (2009), but I share one common view with advocates of high-stakes testing: the displacement of responsibility from schools to families is wrong and corrosive of public education. Yet shifting blame from students to teachers is hardly more productive. How can principals fight the multiple sides of the blame game that we all know exists in school politics? Understand the deep roots of finger-pointing, recognize that the use of testing to blame students has more than a century of history behind it, and know that there are better ways to talk about testing and keep conversations positive and productive.
If Mica Pollock and Sonia Nieto are right about the importance of everyday school decisions and the subtle symbols of language used in school, principals have the power to change conversations by being consistent in talking about the uses of testing and each day asking the right questions about teaching. Larry Cuban (1993) argued that while teaching changes slowly, and teachers often hybridize new techniques with older practices, individual teachers can still be innovators in their classrooms. The same is true for principals.
A principal can change the conversation by removing teachers and students from being the objects of testing. Yes, students take tests (and they need to be motivated for the scores to mean anything!), but it is more productive to use tests to make teaching decisions than it is to judge students. Yes, teachers are responsible for a significant part of student academic performance, but it is more productive to use tests to make teaching decisions than it is to make personnel decisions. A principal can decide whether it is more important to test decisions than to test students or teachers.
Even if a principal does not agree with my historical perspective, there is a practical reason to focus on testing decisions: if one combines all the decisions of administrators and teachers together, a school will produce thousands more instructional decisions each year than it will produce report-card grades for students or hiring or firing decisions for teachers. A principal has far more opportunities to shift teaching in a school when the conversation is about instructional decision-making than when the conversation is about judging students or teachers.
If principals want to talk about testing instruction, they need tests that are good enough. If tests are good enough, then teachers and administrators can know whether a set of scores means that the last month or so of teaching has been successful or if classroom teaching needs to change. From a practical perspective, assessment does not have to be perfect to be used for instructional decisions; and research in progress monitoring of student achievement (or curriculum-based measurement) suggests what may be “good enough” testing. Tests are good enough when changes in test scores reflect real improvement in student achievement, and when test score changes are sensitive to improvement. There are important questions about how much growth is “good enough,” and I do not wish to imply that figuring out if learning is adequate is settled in the research literature (e.g., Deno, Fuchs, Marston, & Shin, 2001; Fuchs, Fuchs, Hamlett, Walz, & Germann, 1993).
But the existence of research on testing instructional decisions is an important demonstration of an alternative way to use and talk about assessment (e.g., Yeh, 2006), and the nature of the tests constructed for that purpose has consequences for the value of different tests in talking about decisions. Specifically, there is a catch to using formative or “rapid” assessment: assessment that can be used to test decisions may not give principals or teachers great information about how challenged your students are or how well they are exposed to a rich curriculum. All tests are better at revealing some information than they are at others. So until there is a perfect assessment system that is consistent, sensitive to change, reflective of a challenging curriculum, and can also make a souffle that doesn’t collapse, principals need to have multiple sources of information on whether instructional decisions need to change during the year. An administrator can always look at a sample of student work or ask a sample of students the type of questions that were commonly asked of students in the British inspectorate system (Wilson, 1996): What are you doing in class today? Why? What’s the point of this particular assignment? What do you want to learn next?
But no matter what tests are available and how you supplement that information, principals need to focus on positive and productive decision-making. The work of Fuchs, Fuchs, and Hamlett (1994) suggests that a central decision-making question is helpful in primary and intermediate grades, such as “Do we raise a concrete expectation or change instruction?” That may not be the only useful question, but it has one important trait: there is no wiggle room where a teacher can avoid making an instructional decision.
My claims here come from a historical perspective and a fear that the century-long culture of student- and family-blaming will swallow the formative assessment and Response to Intervention models, with the claims of high-stakes accountability advocates hollowed out as a consequence. My hope is that principals can shape schools to be places that are positive and focused, but my direct connection with schools right now is with my children who are students and relatives who teach. Readers, what do you think: is there a chance to use assessment in a useful way, and if so, how?
Calhoun, D. H. (1973). The intelligence of a people. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Cuban, L. (1993). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1890-1990 (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Deno, S. L., Fuchs, L. S., Marston, D., & Shin, J. (2001). Using curriculum-based measurement to establish growth standards for students with learning disabilities. School Psychology Review, 30(4), 507-524.
Dorn, S. (2007). Accountability Frankenstein: Understanding and taming the monster. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Dorn, S. (2009). One-Blog Schoolhouse: An historian’s quick takes on education and schools. Tampa, FL: Perspectives on Education Publishing.
Fuchs, L.S., Fuchs, D., Hamlett, C., Walz, L, & Germann, G. (1993). Formative evaluation of academic progress: How much growth can we expect? School Psychology Review, 22(1), 27-48.
Mazzeo, C. (2001). Frameworks of state: Assessment policy in historical perspective. Teachers College Record, 103(3), 367-397.
Tyack, D. B. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wilson, T. A. (1996). Reaching for a better standard: English school inspection and the dilemma of accountability for American schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
Yeh, S. S. (2006). Can rapid assessment moderate the consequences of high-stakes testing? Education and Urban Society, 39(1), 91-112.