Parents’ thoughts about alternative tests

When educators in Boulder, Colorado, were developing new assessments for use in their classrooms, they became concerned about parents’ reactions to alternative forms of assessment in contrast to the more familiar standardized tests.

Researchers Lorrie A. Shepard and Carribeth L. Bliem, University of Colorado/Boulder, were working with third-grade teachers in three schools to design better ways to measure students’ performance of the skills that are the goals of classroom instruction. Since the teachers’ willingness to experiment with new assessments was influenced by the anticipated response of parents, Shepard and Bliem collected data to examine parents’ thoughts about testing.

Previous surveys had indicated that parents think performance assessments are less rigorous and objective than standardized tests. Using questionnaires and extended interviews, Shepard and Bliem set out to learn how parents evaluate the usefulness of standardized tests compared to less formal types of information such as report cards, talking to the teacher, or seeing samples of their child’s work. They collected questionnaire data twice during the year, and conducted a total of 60 in-depth interviews with parents.

Talking to teacher

Overwhelmingly, parents indicated that they learn most about their child’s progress by talking to the teacher. This unexpected result was highly consistent across the schools experimenting with alternative assessments and schools using only standardized tests, and between survey and interview responses.

Talking to teachers and seeing graded samples of their child’s work were rated more useful than standardized tests for learning about their child’s progress and even for judging the quality of education provided at their child’s school. Their comments emphasized the value of receiving specific information about their child’s strengths and weaknesses: “I can see the actual work, the teacher’s response, and evaluate what I understand my child’s level of learning to be.” They explained that seeing samples of work gave them information about the school curriculum, what expectations were being set, and how caring the teacher was with students. They emphasized that seeing the actual work let them judge whether what was being taught was worthwhile.

Parents give higher approval ratings for performance assessments

These researchers provided parents with actual examples of multiple-choice items in reading and math from the standardized test used by their district and a sample of the open-ended questions used in performance assessments. Parents were asked to rate their approval or disapproval of each type of question without being forced to choose one over the other. Although most parents approved both types of measures, performance assessments had higher approval ratings than standardized tests.

For example, in mathematics, 18 percent strongly approved of standardized test questions while 31 percent strongly approved performance assessment questions.

Almost all the parents were very interested in having a close look at both standardized test questions and performance assessments. More than 90 percent of the parents interviewed preferred the use of performance assessments for both district and instructional purposes. The majority approved both kinds for district purposes but overwhelmingly preferred performance assessments for classroom instruction. The most frequent comment was that performance assessments made children think harder.

Shepard and Bliem report that parents demonstrated remarkable sophistication in their analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of standardized tests and performance assessments, in many cases mirroring the concerns of measurement experts. Both parents who favored standardized tests and those who did not, observed that standardized tests have clear-cut right and wrong answers and are more objective. They also remarked that they seem easier.

They recognized that performance assessments are more subjective and therefore more difficult to score. However, they saw that they could be used diagnostically by the teacher because responses revealed what the child was thinking. Parents expressed some concern that performance assessments might be unfair to low-performing children or children who had trouble writing. Despite this, parents were enthusiastic about using them for classroom instruction. In general, they believed that both types should be used for district purposes because “children learn in different ways.”

Results runs counter to expectations

Shepard and Bliem point out that although a sample of third-grade parents is not likely to respond in the same way as parents of older children, results are remarkable and run counter to what educators and researchers expected.

Most important, parents consistently trusted teachers and had confidence in their professional judgment. Their favorable ratings of standardized tests did not imply a preference for such tests over performance assessments or other less formal sources of information. Talking to the teacher and seeing graded samples of work were thought to be much more useful in learning about their child’s progress.

Graded samples of work also provided an important indicator of school quality for parents by showing what was being taught and what expectations were set by the teacher. Parents repeatedly mentioned that performance assessments “make children think” and give the teacher better insights about a child’s understanding. They felt it was very important to have children explain their answers in mathematics and to express themselves in response to stories they read.

Shepard and Bliem attribute the generally favorable response of these parents to performance assessments to two factors that they suggest might be useful to other school districts. First, the changes being proposed were not radical. The use of performance assessment did not mean throwing out standardized tests. Second, parents were able to look closely at performance assessments instead of judging by what they read in the newspapers. Most were satisfied that performance tasks were challenging and represented worthwhile learning. Seeing the actual tasks in performance assessments reassured parents that schools were not abandoning basic skills. They could see for themselves what children needed to know to perform these tasks. Educators in turn were impressed by the discernment and sophistication demonstrated by parents’ analyses of test items and reassured by their trust in teachers’ judgment.

“Parents Thinking About Standardized Tests and Performance Assessments” Educational Researcher Volume 24, Number 8, November 1995 pp.25-32

Published in ERN January/February 1996 Volume 9 Number 1

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