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Edward H. Haertel, Jacks Family Professor of Education, Stanford University,
Pamela A. Moss, Professor of education, University of Michigan School of Education,
Diana C. Pullin, Professor in the Lynch School of Education and an affiliate professor of law, Boston College,
James Paul Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, Arizona State University
The most pressing issue facing U.S. education may be providing all students with a fair opportunity to learn (OTL). Although most would embrace the goal of enhancing OTL, there are fundamental disagreements about how best to accomplish this and different understandings of the meaning of “opportunity to learn.” Historically, conceptions of OTL have been closely tied to the practice of testing. OTL has been conceptualized as opportunity to learn what is tested, and test-based accountability has been widely implemented as a means of enhancing OTL. In the United States, policy makers have embraced test-based accountability as a means of somehow forcing schools to bring “all children” to a “proficient” level of achievement. By law, tests must be “aligned” to rigorous “academic achievement standards.” Thus, standardized tests are relied upon to provide both the definition of successful learning and the means to assure that OTL is extended to all learners. Against this vision, many have criticized the conception of learning underlying large-scale testing programs and have argued that test-based accountability has, in fact, undermined many students' opportunities to learn.
It is rare to find any productive dialogue between the critics and the proponents of test-based accountability systems. By and large, testing advocates embrace a straightforward account of educational improvement. It is taken as a given that schools are doing a poor job – the goal of schooling is to impart skills to students, and it is common knowledge that many students graduate without having acquired the skills they need.
Students with disabilities are a group for whom opportunity to learn (OTL) and educational assessment present special issues of public policy and challenges for educational research and practice. These challenges highlight both the powerful prospects for improving schools and the significant limitations inherent in current practice. One commentator has suggested that “when read critically, special education provides the structural and cultural insights that are necessary to begin reconstructing public education for the historical conditions of the twenty-first century and, ultimately, for reconciling it with its democratic ideals” (Skrtic 1991, 206).
Children with disabilities were a group long excluded from our nation's schools. In 1974, Congress estimated that more than a million children with disabilities were not in school (Hehir and Gamm 1999; Pullin 1999). When a commitment was made to educate this population, it was embedded in a series of state and federal legal protections that define access to educational opportunity in a manner quite different from the opportunities afforded to students without disabilities. Although our system of educating students with disabilities is far from perfect in either design or implementation, examination of the treatment of students with disabilities affords a different lens for viewing the challenges associated with providing every child with a full and fair opportunity to learn utilizing appropriate and meaningful testing and assessment.
Almost nine percent of the students in the country, more than six million children and youth, received special education services in 2002 under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); almost half of these students were those placed in the category of individuals with specific learning disabilities (U.S. Department of Education 2004).
Educational tests are sometimes viewed as no more than measuring instruments, neutral indicators of learning outcomes. For more than a century, though, tests and assessments have been used in the United States to influence curriculum, allocate educational resources and opportunities, and influence classroom instructional practices (Haertel and Herman 2005). It is argued in this chapter that the idea of opportunity to learn (OTL) offers a useful lens through which to understand these many consequences of testing policies and practices, both positive and negative. Whenever assessment affects instructional content, resources, or processes, whether by design or otherwise, it is affecting OTL.
After framing the interplay of assessment with conceptions of OTL in terms of (1) content taught; (2) adequacy and allocation of educational resources; and (3) teaching practices, the chapter turns to five cases that illustrate some of these intersections. First considered is the intelligence-testing movement of the early twentieth century. This was a well-intentioned but unfortunate attempt to use testing to guide more efficient resource allocation. Second is Tyler's Eight-Year Study in the 1930s. This study reflected the designers' deep understanding that neither curriculum content nor instructional practices could be changed fundamentally unless consequential examinations were changed at the same time. The third case considered is the minimum competency testing (MCT) movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which prompted litigation leading to the legal requirement that students have a fair opportunity to learn what is covered on a high school graduation test.
Although assessment has a long history in American education, at no time in the nation's history has it been so prominent and pervasive as it is today. Due to state initiatives and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) (P.L.107–110, 2002), externally mandated testing is currently seen as the primary means of driving education reform, a means through which evidence-based decisions can be made to achieve accountability, allocate resources, inform parents and taxpayers, and credential educators. This is in addition to the longstanding and widespread use of tests to determine placement of individuals in special education or gifted programs, grade-to-grade promotion, certification for graduation, allocation of scholarships and vouchers, special intervention in instructional programs, accreditation of schools, and higher education admissions. Testing, however, is only one type of educational assessment, and in the nation's schools there are a wide range of assessment practices used by teachers and other educators, the primary users of assessment information and the primary providers of learning opportunities to students. The work represented in this volume is intended to challenge our understandings of the roles of assessment in schools and to reform our perspectives on the relationships between assessment, learning, and the provision of meaningful learning opportunities.
Providing all students with a fair opportunity to learn (OTL) is perhaps the most pressing issue facing U.S. education. Moving beyond conventional notions of OTL – as access to content, often content tested; access to resources; or access to instructional processes – the authors reconceptualize OTL in terms of interaction among learners and elements of their learning environments. Drawing on socio-cultural, sociological, psychometric, and legal perspectives, this book provides historical critique, theory and principles, and concrete examples of practice through which learning, teaching, and assessment can be re-envisioned to support fair OTL for all students. It offers educators, researchers, and policy analysts new to socio-cultural perspectives an engaging introduction to fresh ideas for conceptualizing, enhancing, and assessing OTL; encourages those who already draw on socio-cultural resources to focus attention on OTL and assessment; and nurtures collaboration among members of discourse communities who have rarely engaged one another's work.
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