Q&A with Bob Schaeffer of FairTest

Assessment has been a part of American public schools since the early 20th century. Robert Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) and co-author of Standing Up to the SAT, has followed public school assessment trends for almost 30 years. ASBJ’s Margaret Suslick recently spoke to Schaeffer about how to evaluate and improve student assessments.

What constitutes a ‘fair’ test?

To be considered “fair,” a test must—at a bare minimum—meet the basic standards of the assessment profession. That means providing evidence that the instrument measures what it claims to measure, that it does so accurately, and that it operates fairly with regard to test-takers from all backgrounds.

At the same time, test results must be used properly. Standardized exam scores should never be relied upon as the sole or primary factor to make high-stakes judgments about students, educators, schools, or districts.

Equally important, tests and their applications must support high-quality teaching and learning, a standard that current public school exams sometimes fail to meet.

How can testing be improved?

Rather than focusing on development of “better” tests, without addressing test misuse and overuse, we need to reevaluate the nation’s approach to assessment. The current fixation on low-level standardized exams undermines educational quality and equity. A healthier assessment system would include three key components: school-based evidence of learning that emphasized classroom work, such as portfolios, performances, and exhibitions; an independent school quality-review process; and limited largescale standardized testing via sampling as a “trust but verify” check. For accountability purposes, schools should report a rich array of data on academic and social aspects of education to parents and the public, and use that information to improve school quality.

If tests become more rigorous, won't kids rise to meet the challenge?

This argument—usually floated by advocates of test-and-punish strategies—is illogical. Imagine a physical education class in which most students cannot clear a high bar set at three feet. Suggesting that raising the bar to four feet and yelling “jump higher” will make more kids “rise to meet the challenge” should get you laughed out of the gym. Yet that is the argument many politicians and ideologues repeat to justify standardized exam mandates. A far better approach—one that works in physical education as well as academic classes—is to assess why children are falling short, then get them the support they need.

How can we ensure that students are being tested fairly?

School boards need to take the initiative to restore testing to its proper diagnostic role and fund development and implementation of new assessment tools that support high-quality teaching and learning. Hundreds of school boards in Texas showed the impact of this strategy two years ago when resolutions they adopted pushed the state legislature and governor to cut back testing.