I’m at the Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO) assessment conference, so naturally there was a big plenary session focused on the common core standards work (led in part by CCSSO). But, even though the session was held before hundreds of assessment experts—and despite Secretary of Education Duncan’s commitment of $350 million in stimulus funding to support assessment work based on the common core—the panel delved only lightly into how the assessment part will come together.
The quota for standards movement skeptics is way oversubscribed and developing core standards for K–12 by the end of the year is already quite an endeavor. But, at the same time, it won’t work if we’re hoping that the thinking behind the assessment piece will just kind of come together at the end. If there’s one thing that my assessment friends have taught me, it’s about the co-dependencies and linkages between the two.
Here are a few initial thoughts on how to think about the assessment side of the equation and spend the Secretary’s money wisely:
- Use Assessment to Drive Support for “Fewer, Clearer, and Higher” Standards: Integrating the assessment conversation can strengthen both educator and political support for the common core. There is widespread agreement on the need to improve assessment, so the connection between improving assessment and “fewer, clearer, higher” should be explicit. If you want to assess more deeply and at a higher level of cognitive challenge, you’ll likely need more extended performance-like tasks (like NAEP Science 2009 or PISA). These take more time to assess and can be expensive — in other words, you need fewer. Clearer is also critical — if the standards cannot be clearly defined within the curriculum, then we end up with generic tests and weaker instruments.
- Don’t Lock in Current Practice: My greatest fear is that we’ll get these shiny new standards and then race to develop RFPs for a national common assessment. Any plan that invests heavily based on the current deeply embedded assessment tools and practices will show no more than very modest improvements.
- Enable Both Sustaining and Disruptive Improvements: We need a 5-7 year plan to significantly improve student assessment, with investments all along the pipeline from crazy new idea to modest, low risk improvements. And, we need an intentional plan to evaluate and scale these up along the way. This implies a series of pilots at various scales, along with incentives to build demand so that successful ideas progress along the pipeline. (Read more about potential new ideas in Beyond the Bubble.)
- Open Platforms and Shared Infrastructure: These are essential to drive down costs, enable scaling, and allow new ideas to penetrate from the edges. (See more in my previous post about standards.)
- Be Smart About Where You Start: The earlier stage the idea, the more it needs to be tried in a low-risk, but still consequential, environment. If we hold every new idea to the current lowest common technology denominator or strictest technical and process constraints — especially high-stakes testing constraints — the ideas will not be very innovative. That said, every pilot needs to take a universal design approach and contemplate how it could work for all students (the open platforms will help here).