Equity Challenges in NSP Assessments

K-12 Testing

The most difficult challenge to implementing successful performance assessments is solving equity problems, says Phil Daro, the New Standards Project (NSP) Assessment Director. Three areas of equity are particularly difficult.


The first is the role of language in performance assessments. For example, in comparing supposedly "identical" mathematics tests written in Spanish and English, NSP found that the use of prepositions and verb forms can affect the meaning or application of a question. With this discovery, NSP corrected all questions prior to publication. "Portfolios also need to be in a child's primary language," Daro added. NSP is committed to publishing all student handbooks in both English and Spanish and recognizes the need to have standards and performance assessments published in all languages.


The second equity issue is developing appropriate accommodations for special education, learning disabled and physically disabled students. NSP believes there must be a policy of inclusion in all educational situations because differently-abled students have long been excluded from assessment and curriculum. New Standards is looking for suggestions on how to approach this issue, as well as information on what accommodations have been used previously, and what are currently available.


The third and most difficult equity issue involves the quality of students' homework and study habits. A subtle manifestation of discrimination in classrooms occurs through instruction, expectations of students, and homework. Research has found a correlation between higher parental income and better quality homework and study habits. The rigor of and expectations from homework given to differently tracked students is the most visible example of differential treatment. Disparities also have been found in the quality of homework assigned in wealthier suburban schools and lower-income urban schools (with higher proportions of minorities).


Additionally, there are also subtle differences in treatment within a classroom based on the expectations for different students and the quality of feedback given to individual students. For example, studies have shown that boys and girls are treated differently within the classroom (as in society). Boys are called on more often and at times are held to higher expectations and standards. Some girls have been rewarded with higher grades for good behavior rather than academic performance.


In evaluating portfolios, New Standards determined that approximately half the materials placed in portfolios was work students produced at home. Therefore the quality of the homework was crucial to the quality of the portfolio and thus, the equity of portfolio materials.


"You can't have a good curriculum without good homework and the expectation of homework," Daro concluded. He believes that implementing portfolios will show how homework affects the quality of work. "Kids can't solve problems if you can't give them the right stuff to work on."


Daro describes two contrasting views of homework. A student believes either, "I learn what the teacher teaches me," or, "I learn what I study." The difference reflects a fact-fed student or an active learner.


The homework assigned and the type of studying done at home can vary greatly. Daro points out that variations in homework create a greater gap in scores than other factors, such as classroom interaction or teachers', parents' and students' beliefs in the student's abilities.


Equalizing homework and expectations may pla a major role in determining not only the quality of portfolios but also whether portfolios will be a learning experience for all students. The challenge is to find a way to implement equitable homework assignments (homework fulfilling opportunity-to-learn principles) throughout all classrooms. Daro expects this issue will only be solved school by school, district by district.


Daro also believes that parents respond positively when they feel the school is investing in their children. Mobility has been a great problem in low-income neighborhoods, where students may change schools two or three times a year. When parents see high quality homework assignments and high expectations for their children, they may make greater efforts to keep their children within the same school district.


When Jaime Escalante of "Stand and Deliver" fame began teaching at Garfield High, it had a high mobility rate. But after a few years of improved homework and expectations, the mobility at Garfield significantly decreased. Daro saw this same trend in a Richmond, California, school district five years ago. With the cooperation of a critical mass of the community, the emphasis was placed on quality homework and study. In turn, the mobility of the students decreased. In effect, the use of portfolios, by revealing the quality and impact of homework, might be a lever toward changing relationships among schools, parents, communities and students in ways that will increase equity and benefit learning.