Anti-testing advocates frequently decry the amount of time students spend on state summative assessments. I must admit that I’m persuaded that it’s gotten out of hand—in Connecticut, where I lived for the past 6 years, nearly every public school student in the state spent the better part of March taking tests. Even if the tests were better, it’s hard to justify taking 3-4 weeks out of a roughly 36-week school year away from instruction. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way?
It’s hard to justify taking 3-4 weeks out of a roughly 36-week school year away from instruction.
There is an old engineering maxim: “Good, fast, cheap; pick two.” When it comes to summative state assessments, we seem to have picked just one: cheap.
The truth is, if we want to build a better assessment, we need to set a more ambitious goal. The current crop of time consuming, low-quality tests isn’t the way the world needs to work; it’s simply the byproduct of a failure of imagination and leadership.
But what if we simply raised our expectations? Why can’t we, for example, have a new kind of test, aligned to the Common Core and leveraging the latest technology, that requires only 3-4 days of testing rather than 3-4 weeks?
Can’t be done? That’s what they said about the iPhone.
Apple’s innovations were as much a product of Steve Jobs’ commitment to doing the impossible as anything else. As Gregory Ferenstein wrote in
Last December, I wrote a post criticizing the assessment consortia for their failure to release more information about the development of the forthcoming Common Core assessments. At the time, I argued that providing information about how the standards would be assessed is critical for teachers working to align their planning, curriculum, and instruction to the new expectations.
Providing information assessments is critical for teachers working to align their planning, curriculum, and instruction to the new expectations.
Today—seven months later and just two years from implementation of the new tests—we aren’t much closer to giving teachers a clear sense of how they and their students will be held accountable to the new standards. And while state and district leaders have begun to put pressure on curriculum developers to provide CCSS-aligned materials, there is very little public pressure being put on the consortia to release more information that would help teachers (and curriculum writers) in their quest to align planning, curriculum, assessment, and instruction to the Common Core.
Fortunately, a few states have started to provide more of the guidance that teachers so desperately need. To that end, the New York department of education has released a set of sample assessment questions for grades 3-8 for both ELA and math. (New York is a governing member of the PARCC consortium, but this work is separate from—though I assume informed by—the work being done by the consortium. PARCC is expected to release sample
Setting a high bar for academic performance is key to international competitiveness.
Photo by EO Kenny.
There is a reason big, modern countries care about education: Decades of experience and heaps of research have shown a close tie between the knowledge and skills of a nation's workforce and the productivity of that nation's economy.
One way to ensure that young people develop the skills they need to compete globally is to set clear standards about what schools should teach and students should learn—and make these standards uniform across the land. Leaving such decisions to individual states, communities, and schools is no longer serving the U.S. well.
We know from multiple sources that today's young Americans are falling behind their peers in other countries when it comes to academic performance. We also know that U.S. businesses are having trouble finding the talent they need within this country and, as a result, are outsourcing more and more of their work.
One major reason for this slipshod performance is the disorderly, dysfunctional way we've been handling academic standards for our primary- and secondary-school students. Yes, an effective education system also requires quality teachers, effective administrators, and a hundred other vital elements. But getting the expectations right, and making them the
The central idea behind standards- and accountability-driven reforms is that, in order to improve student learning, we need to do three things:
- Clearly define a minimum bar for all students (i.e., set standards).
- Hold students, teachers, and leaders accountable for meeting those minimum standards.
- Back off: Give teachers and leaders the autonomy and flexibility they need to meet their goals.
The push for greater accountability has often been paired with less autonomy and more centralized control.
It’s a powerful formulation, and one that we’ve seen work, particularly in charter schools and networks where teachers and leaders have used that autonomy to find innovative solutions to some of the biggest instructional challenges.
Unfortunately, in far too many traditional school districts, the push for greater accountability has been paired with less autonomy and more centralized control. That is a prescription for a big testing and accountability backlash.
You needn’t look far for examples of how traditional districts have gotten the accountability balance all wrong. There are a host of stifling district practices that unintentionally hamstring, rather than free, our teachers and leaders. And that unintentionally encourage precisely the kinds of practices most testing critics loathe.
Many of these top-down district policies stem from the earnest desire to replicate the practices of the best and most effective teachers. Unfortunately, what too many state and district leaders miss is that you can’t script your way to great instruction from district offices or from the statehouse. And trying to
About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
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