a board meeting, with only the hands of the speaker, a paper, and a microphone visable.


Three thoughts in the fountain
Each one seeking better ed
Thrown by three hopeful scholars
Which one will the fountain bless?

There is unanimity in the previous three articles by three internationally acknowledged experts. Namely, assessment practices in the U.S., and in many other nations, are frequently inappropriate for the mission for which they were designed.

The concept of assessment is not the issue. Assessment by teachers is crucial for guiding classroom instruction. Assessment by school administrators and school boards is appropriate for monitoring the systems they are guiding. Assessment by outside entities—state and federal departments of education—helps them fulfill their oversight responsibility for adherence to law, and for monitoring the effects of funds allocated for running America’s public schools.

Assessment is not the enemy. Still, assessment has often been used to punish teachers, schools, administrators, states, and nations. However, it is not an inherent quality of assessments that they be cudgels for whacking school personnel over the head. Assessments are quite rational ways to obtain information for making decisions. But if individuals—teachers, reporters, administrators, and so forth—are not literate enough to properly interpret the information provided by assessments, mistakes are sure to be made.

So, if we look at appropriate reasons for assessments in the U.S., as above, we see that it requires, at a minimum, three overlapping but distinct approaches: One for teachers focused on classroom instruction; one for administrators and school boards, focused on schools and districts; and one for external monitors—state and federal agencies concerned with schools, districts, and the well-being of children in their care.

Thus, author Rick Stiggins rightly focuses on the different roles that assessments play as the purposes for making an assessment change. He makes clear what experts know, and the public doesn’t seem to: Namely, that assessments need to be designed for different purposes. Both the technical quality of such assessments and the inferences made from each kind of assessment are ordinarily quite different. Writing for different purposes—to entertain a reader, to “trouble” the reader, to help readers master a computer—each requires literacy of a slightly different kind to correctly make sense of the author’s message. So it is with educational assessments. Their purpose determines the kinds and levels of literacy required.

One thought thrown into the fountain, the one by Lorrie Shepard, is the one I’d hope the fountain blesses first. The literacy she is most concerned about is at the heart of the educational enterprise. She says: “Fundamental changes in assessment are more likely to be successfully implemented, if they are grounded in present-day research on learning and motivation and tied directly to teacher professional development aimed at implementation of engaging curricula and ambitious teaching practices.” She wants America’s teachers to be assessment literate not so we have more rational national discussions about our NAEP tests or our PISA scores, though that would be nice. She hopes to have teachers skilled enough so they can aid students in mastering the curriculum to which citizens of each district have agreed. Interpreting the responses of students to classroom instruction through formative assessments in order that instruction can be modified for individual students or for the whole classes is the most important assessment task of all.

But assessment for learning, while primary, is a remarkably complicated skill to learn. Assessment of classroom learning by teachers should be secondary, and is no less important, but probably a lot easier to learn. And both necessary assessment competencies are probably best learned in professional learning communities where grade level instructional goals and activities can be discussed.

However, assessment literacy, about which the three authors and I agree, must really be secondary to the curriculum literacy of teachers. If curriculum and assessments do not match well, nothing good can come out of any assessments of achievement.

Assessment literacy for teachers, administrators, and those attempting to audit educational accomplishments, James Popham says, “almost certainly will contribute to our making substantially fewer evaluative and instructional mistakes.” And, I might add, assessment literacy for those who present us with news would result in a lot less hand-wringing and inappropriate scapegoating than now occurs when America’s media interpret state, national, or international achievement test data. I hope the fountain also blesses Popham’s thoughts, particularly his suggestion to form a national assessment literacy collaborative, surely to be joined in such an endeavor by Stiggins, who has worked on related issues all his professional life.

It would be nice of the fountain to bless at least one of Stiggins’ ideas as well. He puts forth the simple but powerful idea that students do not always need to be the object of assessment but can be active participants in the process. Classroom-based assessment is so much richer, he notes, if students learn to ask 1. Where does my teacher want me to get to in my learning? 2. Where am I now? 3. How can I close the gap between the two?

There seems to me to be a continuum from Shepard, to Stiggins, to Popham in their emphasis on assessment literacy for improved teaching and learning in classrooms. Shepard focuses on classrooms, Stiggins on the entire system, and Popham, without slighting classrooms and schools, appears to seek high levels of literacy for the interpreters of educational assessments, particularly those connected with policy. All three scholars agree, however, that if you are going to use the tools we have developed for different kinds of assessment, someone should give you lessons in how to use them.

Three thoughts in the fountain
Each one seeking better ed
Thrown by three hopeful scholars,
Which one will the fountain bless?
Bless them all, bless them all, bless them all.

David C. Berliner (berliner@asu.edu) is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.

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