by W. James Popham
Reviewed by Kenneth J. Bernstein, NBCT
High School Government & Social Studies (MD)
Teacher Leaders Network
This is a book by one of America’s acknowledged experts on assessment: now emeritus from UCLA, Popham has been a leading figure in research (having served as President of the American Educational Research Association), in publication (of his many books and articles, and as editor of a major journal on evaluation), and as a person whose opinions on matters educational are always worth considering. For those interested, you may read a professional bio here.
Popham has in recent years been critical of how our educational policies have approached the matter of tests, assessment and evaluation. This book therefore may catch some off-base, because Popham now moves beyond criticism to try to help those in the classroom deal with the reality of test-based accountability, something to which the current national administration has made clear its commitment.
The purpose of Instruction That Measures Up can be clearly understood from one paragraph in the preface, which appears on p. 2:
I believe the best way for teachers to deal with test-based accountability pressures — the way that benefits students — is to accept those pressures as a given, then plan and carry out instruction knowing that it will take place on an accountability-spotlighted stage. What teachers must do is focus on providing instruction that measures up: to the expectations of administrators, parents, and taxpayers; to their own professional standards; and, most essentially, to the needs of their students.The book is divided into 7 chapters:
1. Teaching Through an Assessment LensThere is also a two page list of resources, an index, and some background on the author, with a total of 174 pages.
2. A Quick Dip in the Assessment Pool
3. Curriculum Determination
4. Instructional Design
5. Monitoring Instruction and Learning
6. Evaluating Instruction
7. Playing the New Game
For those who are not all that knowledgeable about matters of assessment — which not only includes many of those in the classroom, but far too great a percentage of those involved with making educational policy — the second chapter by itself justifies the book. Popham divides the “Assessment Pool” into four broad categories: Testing as Score-Based Inference Making; The Core Concepts of Assessment; The Categories of Educational Tests; and The Summative and Formative Functions of Educational Assessments.
He provides clear explanations of the meaning of terms. Where necessary, he offers a great deal of detail with easy-to-comprehend explanations. A reader who pays attention will begin to grasp the importance of how psychometricians understand key terms.
The four core concepts Popham addresses are the key ideas of Reliability, Validity, Assessment Bias, and Instructional Sensitivity. Any assessment that fails to take into account these core concepts, whether it is designed by a classroom teacher for instructional purposes or by outside organizations and imposed from above for purposes of accountability, will by definition be at risk of being unable to provide sufficiently accurate information to allow one to draw appropriate inferences from the data.
Popham offers a number of blunt statements about problems with our current schemes of assessment, and a number of key warnings, of which one on p. 29 caught my attention: “It serves no one to ascribe unwarranted precision to educational tests.” Unfortunately, our national obsession with numbers and our desire to rank and compare means that it is precisely ascribing too much precision to the data we obtain from tests that has been distorting much of our educational policy for the past several decades.