Can History Point to What Ails Educational Testing Today? | Teachers College Columbia University

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Can History Point to What Ails Educational Testing Today?

An upcoming TC conference will focus on the history, current issues, and future of testing in education.
An upcoming TC conference will focus on the history, current issues, and future of testing in education

Will our era be remembered for having failed a generation of children by rigidly “teaching to the test”? Or will we praised for having created new diagnostic measures that help kids learn?

A major conference at Teachers College on December 9th will seek to defuse the ideologically hyper-charged current national debate over educational testing by exploring the historical roots of educational achievement testing as well as scenarios for its future.  The conference will also spotlight the spread of high-stakes assessments to both early childhood and higher education, pointing to how misguided political and practical uses have sparked resistance to testing by a diverse set of interest groups.

The day-long event – “Testing Then and Now – Building on a Legacy in Educational Measurement, Assessment and Evaluation” – will run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in TC’s Milbank Chapel. 

Some of the conference will focus on the premise that the validity of information from any assessment depends in great part on the context in which a test is administered and used.

“Tests by themselves are neutral tools, designed to serve particular purposes well. It’s often the policies and actions surrounding testing that are over-ambitious or fail to take account of the technical limitations of tests or conditions necessary for implementing sophisticated testing methodologies appropriately in schools. Misuse of tests creates problems, missing the more important goals of schooling,” argues conference organizer Madhabi Chatterji, Associate Professor of Measurement, Evaluation & Education, and Director of TC’s Assessment and Evaluation Research Initiative (AERI). “A focus of this conference will be on discussing issues surrounding old and new kinds of assessments that can meaningfully support teaching, learning and school improvement efforts. That’s very much in keeping with the historical emphasis at Teachers College, where the educational testing field was born through the works of E.L. Thorndike, and significantly expanded subsequently by the work of his son, R.L. Thorndike, and many others.” 

Chatterji, an authority in measurement-evaluation in education,  will lead a panel on these issues that will include Robert Brennan, E.F. Lindquist Professor  of the University of Iowa, who will map the history of educational measurement but has also observed recently that psychometrics – the science of test design – has become so complex today that testing programs have become “a black box” to most educators and public users; Neal Kingston, Professor and Director of the Achievement and Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas, a TC alumnus now leading the creation of large scale tests designed to improve teaching and learning;  Tjeerd Plomp, Professor Emeritus of the University of Twente who previously chaired the the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, and Kent Mcguire, President of the Southern Alliance Foundation, who will provide a policy perspective on assessments suitable for disadvantaged learners.

A second panel at the conference will parse the findings of The Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, which this past March called on states to develop systems of assessment that go beyond identifying student achievement for accountability purposes and instead improve classroom instruction and provide greater insight into how children learn. Commission Chair Edmund W. Gordon, TC’s Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education, will lead the session, joined by James Pellegrino, Distinguished Professor of Education of the University of Chicago; Robert Mislevy, the Frederic M. Lord Chair in Measurement and Statistics from the Educational Testing Service;  Clifford Hill, Arther I Gates Professor Emeritus of TC,  and Herve Varenne, Professor of Education from TC.

“Our conviction is that while the field of measurement in education has established a splendid history primarily directed at the measurement of education, the future of assessment in education will depend on the field’s capacity to pursue assessment for education,” Gordon said last spring when his commission’s report was released.

A concluding panel on the sources of the widespread national backlash against assessment and testing will feature leading experts from the field of education policy, including Rick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute;  Jal Mehta of Harvard Graduate School of Education, author of The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling; and TC faculty members, Kevin Dougherty, an authority on higher education; Sharon Lynn Kagan, an authority on early childhood education policy; and Jeffrey Henig, Chair of the College’s Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis.

“Objections to testing come from Scarsdale parents, governors who are concerned about federal control, teachers’ unions, and those who are anti-privatization – and they all have different agendas,” Henig says. “Still, I think there is a center of gravity that isn’t about ‘Oh, how terrible testing is,’ but instead focused on the problems that emerge when people talk about testing in broad terms and not about the different kinds of testing uses. Which is to say that there are plenty of reasonable concerns about testing, but we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

“Testing Then and Now – Building on a Legacy in Educational Measurement, Assessment and Evaluation” is being presented by AERI together with The Gordon Commission, TC’s Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis, and the College’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education.  The event is the last in TC’s 125th anniversary year series commemorating important aspects of the College’s intellectual history, leading into future realms of study.

For more information and FREE REGISTRATION, click here.

Published Friday, Nov. 22, 2013


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