Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education
Achievement of Students
To target learning support adequately and complement state testing, the State should establish as standard practice the use of classroom-based diagnostic assessments that specifically link to interventions aimed at enabling students to meet California's academic standards and postsecondary education entrance and placement requirements.
The State should continue the use of criterion-referenced tests that enable determination of how well students as a whole are mastering the academic content required to be taught in compliance with state standards and with performance measures that enable us to compare the achievement of California's students with the achievement of students in other states.
Appropriate learning support cannot be provided effectively in a system that relies solely on norm-referenced tests to determine who needs support and the type of support needed, since such measures provide little substantive information about students' academic strengths and gaps. Neither can support be provided effectively if the system delays support until just before or after a student fails a 'high stakes' assessment that carries negative consequences for the student. Diagnostic assessments allow educators to pinpoint the specific assistance students require, and they point to interventions that best respond to particular learning needs. Interventions must not be of the type traditionally used in remedial programs - for example, stand-alone programs focused on basic skills. Rather, they should consist of additional time and instructional support in a curriculum that is matched to course standards and postsecondary education preparatory courses.
Measurement matters. Organizations can manage only what they frequently measure, and student learning is of such importance that it must be better managed than available data indicate has been the case to date. Learning must not be left to chance, nor can instructional strategies remain inconsistent, unfocused, or focused on the wrong things. Unfortunately, emphasis on high stakes tests that aim to invoke greater accountability in education has overshadowed the importance of classroom assessments for monitoring student achievement and adjust instructional strategies. When clear content standards exist, classroom assessments are far more likely to be aligned with the curriculum being taught than are other standardized tests and, therefore, more useful as a tool for monitoring student progress and effectiveness of instruction - the essence of the education process.
There are inherent dangers in making high stakes judgments about students on the basis of a single test. Because assessment should primarily inform teachers and faculty of student progress in meeting learning expectations so that they may provide the learning support needed as soon as possible to promote the achievement of all students, as well as being one of multiple measures that inform decisions about student progress, we further recommend:
The State should continue the process of requiring state-supported preschool providers and kindergartens to develop an individualized learning plan for each child, for assessment of the child's developmental growth.
The State should charge local districts with developing their own assessment systems/policies for providing information about and guiding instruction of individual students.
The State should encourage schools and postsecondary institutions to develop end-of-course assessments that can serve the dual purposes of measuring what a student has mastered at each grade/course level and the student's readiness to successfully undertake learning at the next grade/course level. A key focus should be the readiness of high school seniors to undertake postsecondary education coursework without need for remediation. In particular, assessments of 11th grade performance should be aligned, if not integrated, with entrance or placement examinations of the State's college and university systems.
Schools, colleges, and universities should use authentic assessments that measure students' school/campus accomplishments, including work samples and portfolio entries, in relevant academic subjects, and that would allow students to progress through a variety of coordinated delivery systems.
California's colleges and universities should work collaboratively to develop a means of assessing the learning of students enrolled in public postsecondary education.
Californians are no less interested in whether public education is working for all students when the focus shifts from public schools to the public colleges and universities. Unlike the K-12 schools, however, postsecondary education has no commonly accepted academic content or skills that should be taught to all its students. Yet, there is, or at least should be, a value added to the lives of college-educated individuals beyond the economic benefits of higher lifetime earnings. All reputable colleges and universities require undergraduate students to complete general education requirements that can serve as a foundation for a consensus on a common body of knowledge and skills that should be taught to every undergraduate student. Based on existing requirements, it seems reasonable that this array of skills and knowledge would include proficiency in oral and written communication, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and problem solving, interpersonal skills, and democratic principles. Skills in the application of technology should be added to this list.
Postsecondary education institutions may choose to go beyond the scope of this recommendation, and the committee would encourage them to do so, to develop measures of competencies specific to the multiple majors from among which students can choose to specialize. Various segments of California's economy are dependent on postsecondary education institutions' doing an effective and efficient job of producing prospective employees with the skills needed by industry, particularly in our science- and technology dominated-fields. Specialized knowledge beyond the general education requirements every undergraduate student must complete to earn a baccalaureate degree is necessary for some types of employment, including our teaching profession, and is an appropriate focus for departmental faculty as they modify curricular requirements over time.
There is complexity and challenge in this recommendation, particularly given the differences in the functions that have been assigned to our three public sectors of postsecondary education and differences in the requirements of particular majors and program accrediting bodies. There are also several additional policy questions to be addressed in considering the development of a system for assessment of student learning at the postsecondary education level. They include the following:
- Should each sector be permitted or encouraged to develop assessments aligned to its particular mission and student body, or should the State encourage use of a common assessment instrument for all sectors?
- Can any test or assessment instrument serve the dual purpose of informing continuous improvement in teaching and learning as well as state accountability? Should the focus be on certifying individual student achievement or on assessing institutional improvement?
- What are the cost implications of pursuing institution-specific, state-developed, or nationally norm-referenced test options?
- How should differences in the selectivity of institutions be accounted for in any assessment system to measure student achievement? How should we differentiate that which students have learned over a lifetime from that which they have learned since matriculation?
- What incentives will need to be in place for students to take the test seriously, so that the results have meaning?
These are significant questions that deserve careful consideration by faculty and measurement experts. However, they are obstacles to be overcome rather than prima facie evidence that measuring student learning in postsecondary education is impossible. The expertise exists among our talented faculty to make significant progress in this area. California's taxpayers deserve nothing less than our best efforts. We will not be alone in this undertaking. A survey of other states indicates that more than half of them have already undertaken similar efforts, partially to provide assurance of quality to state residents and employers (See Table 6, following). According to Peter Ewell, senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, "The problem for American higher education is not how we can build more sophisticated ways to determine from the outside what students are achieving. It is instead how we can establish (and assess against) high and explicit internal standards that are applied across institutions and that are, at the same time, credible to the outside world." 
|State Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes|
|Common statewide test; may be nationally-normed or state-developed||Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South /Dakota, Tennessee, Texas (6)|
|State-mandated assessment; local choice of nationally-normed test||Missouri, Oklahoma (2)|
|In process of developing a common approach to outcomes assessment||Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia (8)|
|State-mandated assessment; locally developed or locally chosen instruments; reporting requirement in place||Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New York, North Carolina (8)|
|State-mandated assessment; locally developed or locally chosen instruments; no reporting requirement in place||Illinois, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin (5)|
|No defined state requirement for assessing student learning outcomes||Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming (21)|
We also observe that regional accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education are increasingly seeking ways to infuse evidence of student outcomes into their regular accreditation processes. To cite one example of this effort, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which accredits postsecondary education institutions in the region of the United States that includes California, focused on student learning outcomes in a January 2002 publication:
- [A]ssessment of student learning is a way to hold results up to intent.
- [A]ssessment provides a means for reporting to stakeholders, both internal and external, evidence of student learning that is at once understandable and usable in increasing institutional effectiveness.
- [The] role of the faculty as scholar[s] includes the doing of assessment as a means to find out what actively engages students in learning and what it is that can be done to make students seek and find meaning in what they are learning.