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University of Colorado's Lorrie Shepard calls for shift in classroom assessment

University of Colorado at Boulder

High-stakes accountability testing is driving out better and more thoughtful means of assessing student learning, according to a prominent education researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"We have to make assessment in classrooms more useful, more helpful in learning," said Lorrie Shepard, professor of research methodology in the CU-Boulder School of Education and president of the 23,000-member American Educational Research Association.

Shepard delivered the conclusions during her presidential address at the annual meeting of AERA in New Orleans on April 26. AERA is the most prominent national and international organization devoted to advancing educational research.

With national attention increasingly focused on raising school accountability through student testing, Shepard called for a fundamental change in how student learning is assessed.

"Our goal should be to find ways to fend off the negative effects of externally imposed tests and to develop instead classroom assessment practices that can be trusted to help students take the next steps in learning," she said.

Tests are an appropriate way to monitor the effects of education reform, Shepard said. But today's policymakers often impose tests as if tests alone are the means to improve education.

Major studies including a 1999 report by the National Research Council have all concluded that in order for educational reform to succeed, there must be shared responsibility for student learning among policymakers, educators and community members, she said. "You can't just heap blame on teachers."

High-stakes testing negatively affects the morale and skills and professionalism of teachers, while sending a message to students that their efforts in school should be made in response to externally administered rewards and punishment rather than the excitement of ideas, she said.

"How might the culture of classrooms be shifted so that students no longer feign competence or work to perform well on the test as an end separate from real learning?" she asked.

Assessment should be part of the entire learning process rather than just the endpoint, Shepard urged. Important principles for teachers include assessing students' prior knowledge to find out what level students are starting from, discussing what criteria will be used to assess classroom performance, and then providing feedback to students on how they can improve their performance.

Teachers also need to learn more about the use of assessment in order to improve teaching and learning, Shepard said. "To do otherwise means that day-to-day instructional practices will continue to reinforce and reproduce the status quo."

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Shepard joined the CU-Boulder faculty in 1974 and is frequently cited as a national authority on K-12 standardized testing and kindergarten readiness. She is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Education and has served as its vice president.

AERA's annual meeting is attended by more than 13,000 registrants and is the world's largest gathering of scholars presenting the latest research on education issues and developments. Members include educators, behavioral scientists, administrators, and directors of research, testing and evaluation in federal, state and local agencies.

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