Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment

National Academy of Sciences

It exaggerates only slightly to say that, whenever the august National Academy of Sciences turns to testing (which is often, as sundry federal agencies keep commissioning studies in this area) it finds that no existing test is good enough to be used for any real-world purposes in this lifetime. The Academy's approach to testing resembles the search for the Holy Grail or for intelligent life in outer space: a continuous quest toward a worthy end that is never actually attained. This solemn, bulky (300-page) new report from the Academy's "Committee on the Foundations of Assessment" will probably be read only by psychometricians and cognitive scientists. But you might want to have a look. Though the authors do indeed take a dim view of most current testing, they set forth a coherent theory of testing, a reasonably intelligible model of testing, and a useful explanation of trade-offs that get made due to the multiple uses we make of tests. Also helpful is some of the discussion about technology-based opportunities for improved testing. The central message, however, recalls a gazillion earlier Academy reports on testing and assessment. It contends that today's testing doesn't incorporate modern advances in cognitive and measurement science. It is notably more interested in classroom uses of testing by teachers than in the evaluation-and-accountability functions of interest to education policymakers. And it is dismissive toward tests that measure students' acquisition of basic skills and specific knowledge, no matter how much such things matter in the real world. The Committee that authored it is interested mainly in the assessment of complex cognitive processes. Have a look if you're so inclined. The National Academy Press can be found at 2101 Constitution Avenue NW, Lockbox 285, Washington DC 20055. You can phone (800) 624-6242 or (202) 334-3313, or surf to www.nap.edu.

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