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February 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 5

All About Accountability / Students' Attitudes Count

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When we've taught students in ways that enable them to score high on accountability tests, but in the process have made them scurry away from math or feel repelled by reading, have we educated those students properly? That's really not a difficult question!
Student affect—that is, students' attitudes, interests, and values—should be enormously important to educators because affective dispositions are powerful predictors of students' subsequent behavior. For instance, if students acquire a genuine love of learning during their school years, they'll most likely continue learning long after they've said goodbye to their last classroom. And if students develop confidence in their ability to work with others because of their positive school experiences in cooperative learning groups, they'll probably become the team players and collaborative leaders so sought after by today's employers.
For nearly half a century, many educators have known about the importance of student affect. That's because in 1956, Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues published a taxonomy classifying education objectives according to whether those objectives fell in the cognitive, affective, or psychomotor domain.
But even if student affect is a key component of an appropriate education, does that mean we should incorporate it into our accountability strategies? Yes, because the essence of accountability is assembling evidence to determine whether students have been appropriately educated.

How to Measure Affect

The first step in properly assessing student affect is to identify significant and appropriate affective traits to measure. Most educators can easily agree on many important student attitudes and interests. For example, students should develop positive concepts of themselves as learners, and they should become more interested in the subjects they study. With respect to values, however, things become trickier. It is important that educators refrain from messing around with what's the proper province of the family. Accordingly, schools should deal only with values that are likely to garner near-universal approval from parents and the community—such as fairness and honesty.
Next, educators need to identify methods that will accurately measure student affect. We can most efficiently get a fix on a group of students' current affective dispositions through self-report data. Students must, however, have absolute anonymity in completing the inventories employed to collect such data. This means that students are only allowed to make marks on their inventories, not to provide their names or add comments. Most self-report affective inventories ask respondents to indicate agreement or disagreement with a series of statements related to the affective dimensions being measured.
Some students' responses, of course, are likely to be more positive than their true sentiments, whereas some students' responses are apt to be more negative. When we calculate the average response of a student group, however, these too-positive and too-negative responses tend to cancel each other out, thus providing a sufficiently accurate indication of the group's affect. For that reason, such assessments can accurately measure the affective status of student groups, but cannot accurately measure the affective status of individual students.

The Value of Affect Data

By collecting evidence of important affective changes in groups of students over time, we gain a remarkably important way to judge schools. This information can fill the need cited by many of the most vociferous critics of accountability schemes in education, who have railed against reliance on students' academic test performance as the sole criterion for judging school quality.
The Bethlehem Central School District in New York has recently initiated districtwide use of anonymously collected fall-to-spring affective inventories for its students. Two years ago, during an extended staff development session for all district teachers and administrators, Bethlehem educators concluded that accountability pressures had led them to emphasize cognitive student outcomes—and to neglect almost completely those outcomes dealing with student affect. Accordingly, the district appointed a task force of educators who identified suitable affective targets, devised a set of self-report inventories, used small-group tryouts to improve the inventories, and then began administering them at the beginning and the end of each school year. In undertaking these assessments, Bethlehem has made a districtwide commitment to hold itself accountable for more than academic achievement. If Bethlehem educators choose to do so, of course, they can also aggregate students' affective data at the school level as an additional form of accountability.
In addition to contributing to large-scale accountability extravaganzas, the assessment of student affect can also help classroom teachers do a better job of educating their own students. Using pre-test data from anonymously completed affect inventories, each of Bethlehem's teachers can determine whether any affective targets warrant instructional attention.
For example, suppose a 5th grade teacher discovers that almost all her students agree with the inventory statement, “I am terrified when I give an oral report in class.” That teacher might sensibly decide to install a series of public-speaking activities in class that, gradually and gently, would bolster her students' confidence in making oral presentations. Afterward, students' post-test data will reveal whether the teacher's efforts have been successful.
Bethlehem Central School District appears to be a pioneer in the collection of students' affective data. Their experiences with this important form of data gathering will be informative to colleagues elsewhere who agree that educating the whole child requires attention to students' attitudes, interests, and values as well as their academic knowledge and skills.
End Notes

1 Bloom, B. S., & Krathwohl, D. L. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: Longmans.

2 Descriptive information and the affective inventories used by Bethlehem Central School District can be obtained from Bethlehem's superintendent, Les Loomis;loomlco@bcsd.neric.org.

James Popham is Emeritus Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. At UCLA he won several distinguished teaching awards, and in January 2000, he was recognized by UCLA Today as one of UCLA's top 20 professors of the 20th century.

Popham is a former president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the founding editor of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, an AERA quarterly journal.

He has spent most of his career as a teacher and is the author of more than 30 books, 200 journal articles, 50 research reports, and nearly 200 papers presented before research societies. His areas of focus include student assessment and educational evaluation. One of his recent books is Assessment Literacy for Educators in a Hurry.

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