The secretary wisely prods states to expand public charter school options, improve the quality of teaching, and address failing schools. But, unless his plans for improving our underlying navigational instruments—the tests that generate the data to determine which students, teachers, and schools are succeeding—are just as bold, the “moon shot” will surely fail.
There is widespread agreement that we need to improve not only state tests used under NCLB, but our assessment systems as a whole. And, the secretary has set aside $350 million of his “Race to the Top” fund to develop new assessments.
The good news is that it can be done. Student assessment can be significantly improved. A number of promising new assessment tools and approaches are increasingly available. I’ve written about the potential to utilize technology. Elena has researched and written about tools–such as the College and Work Readiness Assessment–that have the the potential to help assess higher-order skills. And, a number of other countries successfully help instructors develop high, consistent expectations for students by implementing smart practices for teacher involvement in assessment design and scoring.
But the implementation challenge is immense.
While assessment could be significantly improved, large-scale state testing systems are designed to be very slow to change. Test scores are equated to be comparable over time. State and district officials are reluctant to do anything that could risk lower scores. Changes in design, administration processes, and scoring procedures are costly. Any new tests must be considered fair to both educators and students. These and many more factors make it difficult to implement anything but extremely incremental change.
There is much more fluidity in and opportunity to change both periodic and formative assessment systems. Individual schools and districts can and are trying any number of innovative approaches. But, the magnetic pull of the high stakes system is inescapable. Take a look at one of the fastest growing types of assessments: periodic benchmark testing. There are no federal mandates for it to look the way it does. But most of these tests are essentially just online variations of the types of questions found on state assessments.
Finally, advocates are rightly concerned about changes that are enacted under the guise of improving assessment, but actually serve to undermine accountability systems.
There are no quick fixes. If we want a significantly better assessment system, we’re going to have to intentionally try to break out of the current system.
Even with the best of intentions, all of the incentives in the current system serve to lock in today’s practice. Dispersing funds to states with crossed fingers for more testing innovation will not suffice. Nor will a national test built on the foundations of our current inadequate testing systems—the anticipated next step in assessment if states embrace plans for common educational standards.
Kennedy’s moon shot took years of concerted effort, a great deal of experimentation, and yes, some tragic failures. Like an Apollo program for education assessment, the nation needs a long-term and cohesive strategy for applying decades of research on learning and measurement, experimenting with major advancements in technology, and ultimately collecting the kind of data that will be meaningful to schools, teachers, students and parents. This requires putting ideas into practice by investing in the rapid piloting and evaluation of promising new assessment tools and approaches. It isn’t rocket science. Start with small groups of schools that are ready and willing to go beyond the current low-level testing measures. Give them the freedom and funding to implement a variety of new and better ways to assess and improve student learning. Learn from them, scale what works and over time build a system of testing that measures what really matters for school improvement and student learning.