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A personal view of curriculum-based assessment: a response to "Critical reflections...." (response to Lous Heshusius, 57 Exceptional Children 315, 1991) (Point/Counterpoint)

* While we applaud efforts to further holistic thought, we feel that Heshusius' (1991) critique has fallen short of a sound foundation for authentic debate. Her misrepresentation of issues and concepts has created a credibility problem weakening the position she wishes to support. A thorough review of the November 1985 issue of Exceptional Children and other current literature, would reveal that there are major "camps" within the curriculum-based assessment (CBA) movement. These camps were lumped together by Heshusius without adequate acknowledgement of their diverse perspectives. She added direct instruction (DI) to this diverse pool and with unrestricted liberty determined that CBA/DI was "mechanistic" in nature, "Newtonian" in etiology and, therefore, "inadequate" to do what it professes.

In response, it would be an injustice to attempt to represent the various perspectives of other CBA proponents. Instead, we wish to clarify and restate basic assumptions about our own Personal View of CBA (1985). In doing so, we will review certain fundamental concepts of CBA and then focus on specific points of misrepresentation.


The literal interpretation of using one's own curriculum to test what is being taught can be misleading. Assessment should not be approached so narrowly as to be viewed as a series of tasks to be checked off, with students evaluated based on how far they went or what objectives they completed. "Data collection, interpretation and application are not independent entities, but are interwoven functions whose primary goal is to facilitate the instructional decision-making process" (Gickling & Thompson, p. 206). It is how and what the student is doing within the curriculum that becomes the driving force for assessment rather than the standard prescribed curriculum imposed upon the student. CBA assists teachers in understanding how and what by providing them with a blueprint to help guide their instructional decisions. A belief in the frequent sampling of performance to determine a student's instructional need is not unique to special education. Paraphrasing Valencia and Pearson (1987), this type of dynamic daily interactive assessment of one's reading performance could become the norm of the future.

To Heshusius, words such as curriculum, instruction, and assessment are described as "desperately empty" in CBA literature. We find this assertion perplexing inasmuch as the very foundation of CBA rests on these terms. Words such as curriculum, instruction, and assessment are not hollow but have specific meaning.

* Curriculum refers to WHAT students are taught. It represents the media of the teacher's instructional craft consisting of ideas, objectives, and the substantive elements of given instructional domains.

* Instruction refers to HOW students are taught. It represents the actions of teachers in guiding students through the interplay of curriculum and meaningful learning. As such, it represents the delivery system used to provide students with formal and informal opportunities to learn.

* Assessment refers to WHY and WHERE students are taught. It refers to the process of gathering valid evidence to guide decisions about curriculum and instruction, and to evaluate the outcomes of instruction" (Calfee, 1987,p.738).

These definitions are central to our personal view of CBA, as are the following themes related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

1. Curriculum places explicit demands upon learners. It is the inflexible presentation of standard curriculum and the sheer volume of material that is to be covered from day to day regardless of the level and needs of students that creates conditions of failure for many students.

2. Curriculum must be managed or guided if successful learning conditions are to occur for students. A goal of CBA is to eliminate the instructional mismatch between the skills and needs of students and the inordinate demands placed upon them by curriculum assignments.

3. Curriculum provides the most basic and meaningful form of educational assessment since it is within this context that most students are evaluated and are expected to achieve.

It appears that Heshusius agrees with us on these concepts in stating "that the specific nature of the curriculum strongly influences the very ability of each child to learn that curriculum .... attention to the nature of the curriculum should be central to any model of assessment and to any assessment process used to indicate what shall be taught next" (p. 320). We are essentially saying the same thing in acknowledging both the hazards as well as the central role played by the curriculum in a child's educational experience.

No doubt, curriculum can refer to a district/teacher-adopted standard guide which references what is to be taught. It can also refer to a steady diet of what must be learned whether meaningful, purposeful, or not. Or, it can refer to a meaningfully generated set of activities and materials that result from a dynamic interaction between students and teacher: a curriculum that is influenced by and represents a specific social/cultural milieu.

One major difficulty with "Critical Reflections . . . " is that Heshusius does not admit that CBA advocates can actually support child-directed learning, learning that is connected to literacy acquisition, child development, or interactive learning processes. We agree that students should be able to influence the formulation of tasks offered in the context of personal use and purpose. We simply do not agree with her negative reference which presupposes that we are incapable of constructive and holistic thought, nor do we believe that CBA is incapable of considering personal/social/cultural purposes.

Is it necessary to reduce all concepts associated with CBA to negatives? Our personal view does not propose that CBA is a paradigm or major schematic shift, nor do we feel that we are in conflict with one. We simply present a methodology that can be applied to curriculum in order to adapt instruction to the needs of students. The methodology increases awareness that within any curriculum, certain students may need success oriented interventions if failure begins to occur. The methodology does not dictate what the curriculum should be; there are no a priori standards that are controlled and contrived for the purpose of fitting students to preset goals.

CBA works within content and across contexts to produce optimal learning conditions for students. Learning activities are maintained at an instructional level. This affords the learner an appropriate margin of challenge and a realistic opportunity to achieve success, thus avoiding any negative effects which could occur from frustrating tasks. In this respect, CBA reflects the principles of high academic learning time (Denham & Lieberman, 1980), capitalizes upon the student's prior knowledge, examines the suitability of material, and increases the possibility for the student's success.

CBA encourages educators to interact and to dialogue with students on an ongoing basis in order to facilitate instructional decision making. We see CBA evolving into a more naturalistic process and in complementing portfolio and interview approaches. This evolution encourages dialogue and interaction across content and between students and teachers, students and students, as well as students and others within their environment.

One of the most important CBA concepts is the prevention of "curriculum casualties," that is, preventing students from becoming singled out simply because of their inability to keep pace with the "lock-step" pace of grade-level instruction and the uniform nature of standard prescribed curriculum. Surely this emphasis on the "casualties" of a lock-step system is not reflective of the reductionistic view that the cause is within the individual. Likewise, we do not "define the intervention as careful and conscious modification of the students' behaviors through the manipulation of the external environment" as suggested by Poplin (1988, p. 394). Instead, we characterize the inflexible nature of standard-presented curriculum and of the lack of appropriately managed curriculum as "causes" for much school failure.


It should be obvious that our purpose is to help those students who can be called "curriculum casualties." With this perspective in mind, we made the following statement. "The inherent nature of curriculum functions as a sorting device selectively discriminating between students who succeed and those who fail. This process naturally enables students to label or identify who belongs to the open house, inhouse, and penthouse based upon teachers' grouping patterns of the so-called high, average, and slow learners" (1985, p. 208).

When quoting the above statement in "Critical Reflections . . . Heshusius actually substituted the original subject, "the inherent nature of curriculum" with CBA" so that, in her version, it appeared to be CBA procedures that sorted and labeled children. Her transcription on page 316, reads: "To Gickling and Thompson (1985), CBA "functions as a sorting device selectively discriminating between students who succeed and those who fail"' (p. 208). In order to make the rest of the paragraph work, she further improvised the text by using bracketed inserts so that the subject of the following sentence once again referred to "CBA" instead of the "inherent nature of the curriculum" as in the original text. Whether this kind of flaw is accidental or purposeful, it is unprofessional.

On page 319, she misrepresents our position again by stating that we describe "'inflexible print' as a major characteristic of CBA, a print that places 'the same demand on all students regardless of the individual student's deficiencies or capabilities.... The pressure becomes one of adapting children to the curriculum instead of vice-versa."' How can she distort our original text in this way? Our statement refers to the inflexible nature of the standard-prescribed curriculum and the difficulties it presents when educators attempt to adapt children to the curriculum instead of adapting the curriculum to meet the needs of children.

This bias continues in her allegation that our statement about the "'concerted effort to make every task as contextual as possible,' is an apology for the fact that there is nothing natural about contextualization within CBA/DI" (p. 319). There is no effort on our part to contrive "context" nor to "fit" our measures or students into schemes. The sampling processes are broad enough to examine performance in such diverse activities as listening, reading, writing, and speaking; and among the different content areas of math, science, social studies, and so forth. There is no apology as Heshusius suggests. The word "context" comes from a Latin root meaning connection or coherence. Meaningful context is the most valuable component in a student's success and progress-the more authentic and purposeful the better.

Two other terms which apparently need additional explanation are "product" and "process." The meanings of these two terms vary depending upon different contexts. For example, the teacher-effectiveness literature has stressed the importance of how to present material. As important as this presentation process is, the teacher must also be aware of how the demands of the presentation affect the learner. If the product of the lesson (no matter how well it was presented) results in frustration or failure for the student, the teacher needs to be aware of the product he or she is creating. This was the context we were using when stating that "teaching could be more objective if instructors would concentrate on the product of effective teaching more than the process, or at least use the model as a gauge to control the process" Gickling & Thompson, 1985, p. 210).

Given another context, it is important for the teacher to examine the product, but to go beyond it in order to determine how the student is actually thinking and interacting with content-or processing information. The evolution of this practice is currently referred to as "process assessment." In our earlier literature Gickling & Havertape, 1981) we referred to this type of practice as product assessment. We now stand corrected preferring to use the term "process assessment" in its current context.

Meaning, process, and context are all central to teaching and learning. The struggle continues to try to find meaningful ways to apply these concepts, including dynamic strategies for delivering these concepts successfully. This is the area in which CBA is directing its energy. As CBA practitioners, we do not view student-generated ideas as something to be avoided because they may introduce ambiguity as accused in "Critical Reflections . . . ." It is not student-generated curriculum that is to be avoided; it is the lock-step presentation of curriculum without adherence to students' needs that is to be avoided.

In conclusion, Heshusius makes an interesting point by asserting a one-size-fits-all perspective within CBA. She has created a perception that all CBA practices are linear and additive proceeding only from an atomized, sequentialized, and quantifiable base. She has thrown all proponents of CBA into one category and in essence created the same condition which she so openly opposes--a narrow reductionistic view of reality instead of a dynamic evolving approach to assessment, curriculum, and instruction.

There are many who share a vision of constructive holistic learning. What may be missing from the criticisms hurled at the mechanistic philosophy and those who have been parented, so-to-speak, from this paradigm," is a value afforded to teachers, trainers, and what they actually can do. We believe that teacher--seven if they have been trained in a "Newtonistic, mechanistic "paradigm"-are as human as the students they teach. They grow, they learn, they are ever evolving and ever reaching, and they differ depending on their personal, traditional, social/cultural milieu. Hopefully, we all can grow, learn, evolve, and reach a firmer ground.


Calfee, R. C. (1987). The school as a context for assessment of literacy. The Reading Teacher, 40(8), 738-743.

Denham, C., & Lieberman, A. (Eds.). (1980). Time to learn. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Institute of Education.

Gickling, E. E., & Havertape, J. F. (1981). Curriculum-based assessment. In J. A. Tucker (Ed.), Non-test based assessment. Minneapolis: The National School Psychology Inservice Network, University of Minnesota.

Gickling, E. E., & Thompson, V. P. (1985). A personal view of curriculum-based assessment. Exceptional Children, 52, 205-218.

Heshusius, L. (1991). Curriculum-based assessment and direct instruction: Critical reflections on fundamental assumptions. Exceptional Children, 57, 315-328.

Poplin, M. S. (1988). The reductionistic fallacy in learning disabilities: Replicating the past by reducing the present. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 21(7), 389-400.

Valencia, S., & Pearson, P. D. (1987). Reading assessment: Time for change. The Reading Teacher, 40(8), 726-732.


VERLINDA P. THOMPSON (CEC IA Federation) is an Associate Professor of Education in the Department of Teacher Education at Southern Utah University, Cedar City. EDWARD E. GICKLING (CEC #192) is an Instructional Assessment Consultant on the Pennsylvania Instructional Support Teams Project, Bureau of Special Education, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

If the reader would like a more indepth response to Heshusius' criticism please contact the authors directly.

Exceptional Children, Vol. 58, No. 5, pp. 468-471. [C] 1992 The Council for Exceptional Children.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Council for Exceptional Children
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Thompson, Verlinda P.; Gickling, Edward E.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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