While Thursday’s award of $330 million to two state consortia, PARCC and Smarter/Balanced, to design and implement new student assessment systems was not unexpected — there were only two applicants — it’s still an important moment. The consortia’s plans are ambitious and Secretary Duncan is correct that these new assessments have the potential to be an “absolute game-changer.” This is perhaps the most important part, more important even than Race to the Top, of the Secretary’s discretionary stimulus funding. Nice job.
But game-changers take resources, persistence, and above all else, a multi-pronged effort to impact such as vast and fragmented enterprise as American education. While the $330 million is a big investment, states and districts need to be prepared to invest much more to implement the technology, teacher professional development and instructional changes needed to make it all work. If we really want to make assessment better — and our accountability systems, use of data, effectiveness evaluations, etc. all hang on assessment — then it’s going to take much more than this one federal grant.
So, I was disappointed that in yesterday afternoon’s press conference, Secretary Duncan parried away two questions about the costs of implementation. And, Joe Willhoft, the Smarter/Balanced representative from Washington State, tackling the Salt Lake Tribune’s question about how states will pay for new technology, glibly assured that “there has been great increase in the use of technology over the past four years, so we can imagine what the next four years is going to bring.” He added that the Smarter/Balanced consortium has a transition plan allowing states to use paper/pencil for the first several years. In other words, in the midst of a deep recession, this will all just work out. And if it doesn’t, states in our consortium, which touts computer adaptive tests as a main feature, will scrap all those fancy plans and use paper and pencil for three years.
That’s a mistake. Let’s acknowledge the challenge — it’s worth it. Because the real game-changer doesn’t end with assessment. It’s about instruction. And, unless states and districts are fully prepared for the heavy lifting in the years ahead, we won’t get the change we seek. For example, schools could cobble together enough computers and bandwidth and devote it all to testing, or they could begin now to figure out how to pay for and leverage this technology for instructional use. Critical, because to be fair and accurate, the test can’t be the first time that a third-grader is exposed to a computer-based simulation or online writing assignment.
I get it. Let’s not get all heavy on announcement day. But soon, very soon, all the educators, parents, and taxpayers who are so dissatisfied with the current testing regime need to understand their responsibilities for helping to make this change.
More Open Questions…
More Assessments to Come? Duncan notes: “The reauthorization blueprint includes millions for the research, development, and improvement of additional high-quality assessments–which could include science and foreign language tests….Similarly, the new assessments do not currently include English Language Proficiency assessments….It is our plan to set aside funds in the fiscal 2011 budget to support the development of such assessments.”
What Will Happen with the $20 Million Left Over? The other assessment competition, the High School Course Assessment Program was not funded, leaving $20 million in funds to still be distributed. (NCEE’s Board Examination system was the only applicant and still didn’t pass review — sure we’ll hear more about this.)