[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

A Case of Blurred Vision

Russell H. Lord
Educational Foundations
Eastern Montana College

Included in the report of The Montana Education Commission for the '90s and Beyond are several recommendations the commission claims will lead Montana "to break new ground." But if we try to implement the recommendations, the only sure break will be the figurative back of Montana educators and students. For instance, the commission wants to replace student credits, the Carnegie Unit, with "a competency ladder, based on demonstratable competence" as "a new form of 'currency' in the Montana educational system." They claim that "Montana would be unique" because of such action.

The most apt response is the comment made famous by Mr. Spock of Star Trek--"fascinating." That is certainly the kindest response anyone, alien or not, could make.

Just as others around the nation are finally awakening to the incredible waste of resources expended "assessing" people who are seldom well served and often harmed by such activity, Montana's "blue ribbon" experts arrive at an oppositional conclusion. How did that occur?

While several criticisms of the commission's recommendation that Montana proceed to use student "demonstration of competence" (and hold schools accountable) through "assessment" (their quotation marks) of students instead of relying on grades earned in college courses (Carnegie Units) can be made, space limitations prohibit covering all of them here. However, a couple of the most trenchant really must not be overlooked for any time at all.

First, the recommendation, rather than taking Montana forward, constitutes, at best, a belated and misdirected effort. The minimum-competency movement, which began as a high school version of what the commission labels its proposed Montana Assessment Project, began over 20 years ago, followed quickly by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While the Montana commission was producing its report, the Ford Foundation-funded National Commission on Testing and Public Policy was issuing its report based on three years of study, From Gatekeeper to Gateway: Transforming Testing in America. George Madaus, executive director of the commission, stated that "We can't assess our way out of our problems" and "what we're getting for that money right now is not what the country needs. In fact, we're saying the present policy is undermining education. It's giving us the wrong information and it's orienting teaching and learning toward the wrong kinds of skills." Another commission member went on record saying, "We've gone test crazy in an effort to get some accountability. Teachers are now teaching to the tests, because that's how they and their schools are measured." The commission itself stated that standardized testing is "over-relied upon, lacks adequate public accountability, sometimes leads to unfairness in the allocation of opportunities and too often undermines vital social policies."

(For more, non-technical detail, see, among other Sources: U.S. Dept. of Education Office of Public Affairs Daily Education News, Thursday, 24 May 1990; EDLINE Federal Alert, 11 June 1990; USA Today, 4 May 1990; The Washington Times, 24 May 1990; Education Week, 30 May 1990; The Christian Science Monitor, 24 May 1990.) The direct costs of this wrongful reliance total some 20 million school days and $700 to $900 million in annual expenditures. "Indirect" costs in misdirected lives, people wrongly labeled, students incorrectly refused or awarded opportunity, teachers mistakenly hired or fired, etc., are very difficult and perhaps too devastating to measure. Given this belated nationwide recognition, why is it that Montanans are being told to proceed in the opposite direction as quickly as possible? Is it to the benefit of our students?

If the commission indeed knows of substantive differences between the "broad form of...'assessment'" which they constantly reference but never define, and standardized tests, then why not give a glimpse of the differences? Platitudes about "student portfolios," claims that these undefined assessments of competence "would provide a useful qualitative measure" (emphasis mine), and pronouncements that the state should "develop a common language and understanding that can be communicated across the full educational spectrum" sound great, but provide no real direction. Apparently, the reader is to assume that this "common language" will not look like grades, Carnegie Units, standardized test scores, or other "common language" presently in use. To then claim that the project built on these vague missives "could place our state in a national leadership role" is naked hyperbole. Nowhere in the report is there any reference to the "value-added" education already developed and used in other state university systems for over a decade now, the "guarantee" that accompanies graduates at some colleges, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and similar actions already long in place in other states.

A second, slightly more technical, but still understandable problem with the current recommendation concerns the actual ability of any proposed assessments. Since the kinds of assessments required as the centerpiece of the commission's Montana Assessment Project clearly do not follow "the more narrow focus of conventional testing," they do not presently exist and will have to be developed. Yet, even the briefest look at the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), used nationwide for decades and backed by millions of dollars of support from the Educational Testing Service, should dissuade anyone from thinking that the kind of assessment being recommended is either feasible or likely to benefit anyone other than the consultants hired to develop and administer it. The SAT, one of two primary college entrance exams, has an easy task compared with the assessments recommended by the commission. The SAT a strives simply to improve the ability of colleges to predict GPA and likelihood of staying in college among those students seeking college admission. It does not attempt to replace grades assigned over four or more years of coursework in diverse classes, with diverse teachers, and diverse students, as the final indicator that a student is "competent." Yet, the SAT, even in its simpler task, with its far greater financial backing than anything possible in Montana, produces "an increase [in prediction] in average freshman grades of only 0.02 on a four point scale" (Crouse, 1985, Harvard Educational Review, 55, 212). That is, when SAT score is added to high school grades, there is only a 0.02 grade point improvement in prediction of freshman GPA! Now, is that too technical for our commission to understand?

Why not simply use student grades in high school? Is an improvement of a .02 grade point worth the expenditures? Why spend the kind of money and other resources required for such pointless assessment? We should not, which is just the point of Madaus's comment quoted above!

Then why would the Montana commission recommend replacing the very same predictor (grades in courses) that lacks only 0.02 of a grade point when used without a test, with yet to be developed "assessments"? Would anyone really predict that new, state level "assessments" will outperform one like the SAT that has been developed over decades, is annually taken by a million and a half students, is backed by millions and millions of dollars, and sets itself a far easier task? Does the Montana commission know something no one else in America knows?

In response, someone on the commission might argue that SAT-type tests are not what is being recommended. Of course not! What is recommended are vague, undefined assessments in a "common language...that can be communicated across the full educational spectrum." Can even the most casual reader fail to see that such assessments would face far more difficult challenges than the SAT because they are to replace several years of grades earned in courses taught by experts? That is something that even the SAT, in all the arrogance the Educational Testing Service can muster, neither claims nor attempts. In essence, we are being asked, without justification, to spurn the very same predictive criteria (grades) upon which present assessments cannot significantly improve.

Just what can these proposed new assessments realistically be expected to accomplish? Doubtless, some consulting firm will reap significant monetary benefit and Montana college students will be subjected to yet another assessment that cannot be expected to benefit them in any way at all. Montana taxpayers will be expected to find somewhere very large sums of money (not just the "modest start-up appropriation" mentioned by the commission) to foot the bill for what can only be a state fiasco. After all, as the commission states, "no models exist that precisely fit Montana's situation," so other states will not line up their students to take our state's exams, and our assessments could not possibly have usefulness to systems other than our own. A final achievement worthy of mention is the extent to which Montana students will learn to parrot whatever it is that the assessments contain. Students will not learn adaptability from the diverse conditions under which different teachers present different demands to varied groups of students, but will instead focus on the same, standardized "assessments" of "competence" as everyone else.

Are there not some legitimate and beneficial uses for tests and various other assessments? Of course there are! When tests significantly improve the decisions that would otherwise be made without the use of the test, then testing is warranted. Indeed, not to use a test, if available in such a circumstance, would be irresponsible. However, that is not the situation in which we presently find ourselves. Montana students are already shown to be "competent," as cited in the commission's own report and diverse other state figures. We have a higher percentage of high school graduates than most states, higher than average CT and SAT scores, the highest number of baccalaureate degrees in the country per capita, and Montana students show resounding success in graduate schools, professional schools, and the nation's elite universities. Additionally, we live in a time of limited resources and lack the "stable, adequate base of institutional funding with which to work"--which the commission itself acknowledges will be required for this project.

Montana has historically valued education accessible to all, offered and judged to the extent possible in one-to-one human relationships. Are we to forsake that noble tradition merely to fit ourselves to a standardized, pre-formed mold, yet to be developed for uniform, statewide use? Where is the substance of the vaunted Montana claim of individual dignity, and uniqueness in the state and her people? Now is not the time to try and catch a passing trend that not only runs counter to our stated values, but is at least being questioned by a nation belatedly awakening to the wrongful uses of tests in several of their various disguises.

[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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