Educational Psychology and Student Assessment
Educational psychologists have been major players in the measurement of student performance, virtually defining a national achievement curriculum. The keystone is the standardized test. Alternatives have appeared under labels like authentic or performance-based assessment, along, with packages for placement in special programs (learning handicapped, emotionally distressed. gifted, English-language learners).
Linking these assessments are criteria and methods to establish validity and reliability and an overarching system of constructs and standards. Validity assures that an assessment measures a well-defined construct. For example, a reading test should test “reading.” Reliability refers to the trustworthiness of an instrument. Groups of judges rating student compositions must agree among themselves.
Several tensions trouble the field of student assessment, reflecting the importance of schooling for the individual and the society. Most significant is locus of control, pitting the classroom teacher against more distant authorities (the school district, the state, or even the federal government). In developed countries, centralized testing often determines admission to secondary and postsecondary schooling. Local control of U.S. schools is a long-standing tradition. This tradition has been challenged, however, as states and the federal government provide increased funding for public education and concomitant demands for accountability. Some teachers have resisted pressure to “teach to the test.” offering alternative methods of their own devising.
Educational Psychology and Teacher Assessment
Only in recent decades has the evaluation of teachers emerged as a significant research topic. Assessment methods vary within levels of teacher development: admission to preservice programs, initial licensure, and induction leading to tenure. The trend is to use standardized procedures for entry-level decisions (e.g., admission to training programs) and performance-based methods for professional advancement decisions (e.g., tenure).
Because of concerns about applicant quality, college students planning to enter teaching must now demonstrate basic skills in many states. The multiple-choice tests resemble those given to high school students, with the same advantages and limitations. High failure rates by underrepresented minorities mean that many potential teacher candidates are denied access to the field. The tests have been challenged as biased and unrelated to teaching potential; the counterargument is that every teacher should possess a minimum level of competence.
Following preservice preparation and during the first few years of service, teachers are in turn licensed and then inducted into tenure positions. During these steps, which most states regulate heavily, candidates undergo serious and sustained evaluation. Prior to 1990, the National Teacher Examination (NTE), a multiple-choice test covering teaching practices and content knowledge, often served for licensure. The NTE was criticized as lacking validity because it did not assess “real teaching.” In the late 1980s, Educational Testing Service introduced Praxis, a combination of computer-based tests of basic skills, paper-pencil exercises of subject-matter knowledge, and performance-based observations. Praxis has greater face validity and appears more closely linked to practice.
Professional preparation in teaching is “thin” compared with other fields. You can track the progress of doctors, nurses, lawyers, and accountants by certificates on office walls, once a teacher has acquired tenure. However, opportunities for professional development are scarce and go unrecognized. In 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was formed to develop and promote methods for assessing excellent teaching. Teachers desiring to move beyond initial licensure can now apply for an intensive experience composed of ten performance exercises; the teacher prepares six at the local school, and four are administered during a one-day session in an assessment center. The classroom exercises include instructional videotapes and student work samples, which the candidate must analyze and interpret. At the assessment center, the candidate reviews prescribed lesson materials and designs sample lessons. Panels of expert teachers rate each portfolio and award certificates of accomplishment. The standards are high, and pass rates have been modest. Some states now give certificated teachers pay incentives, but the movement has yet to catch on.
Two final issues warrant brief mention. The first is reliance on student achievement as an indicator of teaching effectiveness. Teacher associations like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers oppose this policy, arguing that student scores reflect many factors the teacher cannot control. States increasingly hold schools responsible for achievement standards. Although the focus is the school, teachers share incentive payments for exceptional school-wide performance and must deal with the consequences of low scores.
The second issue centers around teacher knowledge of assessment procedures. Externally mandated tests receive most attention, but teachers also rely on their own observations and classroom assessments to judge student learning. How trustworthy are teacher judgments? How knowledgeable are they about standardized tests? Surveys show that teachers receive little preparation in assessment concepts and methods and typically rely on intuition and prepackaged methods. Some educators have proposed the concept of “assessment as inquiry” to support classroom-based methods like portfolios and exhibitions, but with little effect on practice thus far.
Educational Psychology and Administrator Assessment
Teacher evaluation has not captured the same attention as student assessment but even less attention has been given to assessment of principals and superintendents. One might think that school leaders should be required to demonstrate their knowledge and skill, both to enter their positions and as part of continuing professional development. In fact, work in this area is sparse, with few contributions by psychologists. The research foundations are limited but are emerging around leadership concepts and practical needs.
Administrators typically attend more to budgets and personnel matters than to teaching and student learning, except when schools stand out as exceptional or in dire straits. Research suggests that effective schools are correlated with strong administrative leadership; unfortunately, less is known about how to assess or support leadership. The criterion for effectiveness has typically been standardized student performance. Analogous to an assembly-line model, the administrator’s task is to increase the output. Newer models stress human relations and organizational integrity but much remains to be done.
What Has Endured and What Is Valuable?
Standardized multiple-choice tests will remain most likely primary indicators of student achievement. Performance-based methods for large-scale accountability, a closer link between classroom assessment and local reporting of student achievement, and clinical strategies like the best of those found in categorical programs all offer alternative assessment models for the future. The new methods have stimulated public debate about the outcomes of schooling and about the trustworthiness of methods for judging the quality of educational programs. Equity issues are a significant element in these debates. Assessment data show that U.S. schools are doing reasonably well for students in affluent neighborhoods but are failing families in the inner cities and poor rural areas. Indicators can serve to blame victims or to guide improvements. We have much yet to learn about methods for supporting the second strategy.