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Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing: Standard 1

1. The interests of the student are paramount in assessment.

Assessment experiences at all levels, whether formative or summative, have consequences for students (see standard 7). Assessments may alter their educational opportunities, increase or decrease their motivation to learn, elicit positive or negative feelings about themselves and others, and influence their understanding of what it means to be literate, educated, or successful. It is not enough for assessment to serve the well-being of students “on average”; we must aim for assessment to serve, not harm, each and every student.

The following assessment practices are most likely to serve students’ interests. First and foremost, assessment must encourage students to become engaged in literacy learning, to reflect on their own reading and writing in productive ways, and to set respective literacy goals. In this way, students become involved in, and responsible for, their own learning and are better able to assist the teacher in focusing instruction. Some assessment practices, however, such as those that include public comparisons of students, tend to produce conditions of threat and defensiveness, limiting students’ engagement and their ability to reflect productively on their performance. English-language learners face a double hurdle, since their test results often reflect both their knowledge of a subject and their knowledge of the English language. Constructive reflection is particularly difficult under such conditions. Thus, assessment should emphasize what students can do rather than what they cannot do. Portfolio assessment, for example, if managed properly, can be reflective, involving students in their own learning and assisting teachers in refocusing their instruction.

Assessments that serve the students’ interests might include many of the multimodal texts that students create outside of school because they are constructed for purposes that the students establish—for example, how they update their MySpace pages based on their interests, recent events, or new friends. Most of the texts they create as artifacts of typical reading of print in school are for pur-poses established by teachers. It is possible that we could get much more valid assessments of their literacy practices if we provided more opportunities for them to select both texts (whether print or multimodal) and tools (e.g., Web 2.0 tools).

Second, assessment must provide useful information to inform and enable reflection. The information must be both specific and timely. Specific information on students’ knowledge, skills, strategies, and attitudes helps teachers, parents, and students set goals and plan instruction more thoughtfully. Information about students’ confusions, counterproductive strategies, and limitations, too, can help students and teachers reflect on and learn about students’ reading and writing, as long as it is provided in the context of clear descriptions of what they can do. It is equally important that assessments provide timely information. If information is not provided immediately, it is not likely to be used, nor is it likely to be useful because needs, interests, and aspirations generally change with the passage of time. In either case, the opportunity to influence and promote learning may be missed.

Third, the assessment must yield high-quality information. The quality of information is suspect when tasks are too difficult or too easy, when students do not understand the tasks or cannot follow the directions, or when they are too anxious to be able to do their best or even their typical work. In these situations, students cannot produce their best efforts or demonstrate what they know. For example, researchers have found that modifying or simplifying the language of test items has consistently resulted in English-language learners’ improved performance and does not sacrifice the rigor of the test. Requiring students to spend their time and efforts on as-sessment tasks that do not yield high-quality, useful information results in students losing valuable learning time. Such a loss does not serve their interests and thus constitutes an invalid practice (see standard 7).

It is important to note that many classroom-level assessments also fail to meet criteria for serving student interests. Regardless of the source or motivation for any particular assessment, states, school districts, schools, and teachers must demonstrate how the assessment practices benefit and do not harm individual students.

This standard requires that if any individual student’s interests are not served by an assessment practice, regardless of whether it is intended for administration or decision making by an individual or by a group (as is the case with tests used to apply accountability pressure on teachers), then that practice is not valid for that student. Those responsible for requiring an assessment are responsible for demonstrating how these assessment practices benefit and do not harm individual students.

Traditionally, group-administered, machine-scorable tests have not encouraged students to reflect constructively on their reading and writing, have not provided specific and timely feedback, and generally have not provided high-quality information about students. Consequently, they have seemed unlikely to serve the best interests of students. However, this need not be the case if they are able to provide timely, high-quality information to students.

Assessment instruments or procedures themselves are not the only consideration in this standard. The context in which they are used can be equally important. Indeed, the most productive and powerful assessments for students are likely to be the formative assessments that occur in the daily activities of the classroom. Maximizing the value of these for students and minimizing the likelihood that they are damaging for any one student might involve an investment in staff development and the creation of conditions that enable teachers to reflect on their own practice. Similarly, assessment by portfolio might work well when teachers have expertise in a workshop approach to literacy but not when there is pressure for performance on a high-stakes multiple-choice test. This is not to say that portfolio assessment that satisfies this standard in the classroom may not also satisfy it in the context of a high-stakes assessment, such as an accountability assessment.


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