What would Steve Jobs do?

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 a Fast Company article:

Jobs's vision for products were driven by his ultra-ambitious beliefs in what technology for the masses could achieve, as described by Isaacson in a telling example of when Jobs wanted to motivate an engineer to decrease the Macintosh boot time.
If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?" [Jobs] asked. Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to 300 million or so hours per year that people would save, which was the equivalent of at least 100 lifetimes saved per year." [Engineer, Larry Kenyon] was suitably impressed, and a few weeks later he came back and it booted up twenty-eight seconds faster," [Bill] Atkinson recalled. "Steve had a way of motivating by looking at the bigger picture.

Steve Jobs inspired heroic innovation to avoid the nuisance of a few extra seconds of boot time. We are wasting weeks of children’s lives on subpar tests and, as far as I can tell, all the future holds right now is more of the same. Where is education’s Steve Jobs? Think of how many lifetimes would be actually saved if we built a better assessment—one that not only painted a more accurate (and holistic) picture of student learning, but that did so by taking no more than 3-4 days away from the instruction that students need?

The truth is our education leaders have simply failed to make this a goal—or really to articulate an unambiguous vision of what we want from our summative assessments and to demand that we make that vision a reality. For example, this was the guidance given by the Department of Education for the Race to the Top Assessment Grant Program:

[The Department of Education will] provide funding to consortia of States to develop assessments that are valid, support and inform instruction, provide accurate information about what students know and can do, and measure student achievement against standards designed to ensure that all students gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace. These assessments are intended to play a critical role in educational systems; provide administrators, educators, parents, and students with the data and information needed to continuously improve teaching and learning; and help meet the President's goal of restoring, by 2020, the nation's position as the world leader in college graduates.

Such a goal is so broad as to be meaningless. It is a request for mediocrity.

If we are going to develop the assessments we so desperately need—and that teachers so desperately want—the first step is to make both quality and efficiency the priority. What if, instead, the Department of Education held a competition for a single assessment that:

  • Is a valid and reliable assessment of four key areas: ELA, math, science, and history.
  • Is flexible enough to benchmark both to the Common Core ELA and math standards as well as individual state science and history standards.
  • Takes no more than three to four days to administer—inclusive of all core content areas.
  • Provides data that are valid for the purposes of school- and teacher-level accountability (for teachers of ELA, math, science, and history).
  • Ensures that the data can be disaggregated and compared (in ELA and math) across states.

Would this cost more to develop. Absolutely! The R&D for such a test would be far more than any individual state has so far been willing to pay. But, as I argued last December:

Too many states have low-quality assessments because too few states (if any) make getting assessment right a top priority. States spend a comparatively miniscule amount of their budgets on assessment. In Ohio, for instance, a back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that assessment accounts for a mere 0.7 percent of the state’s total education spending. (In other states, I’m sure the figure is similar.) We pay for a household scale, but we want the diagnostic functionality of an MRI.
And this is exactly the kind of market failure that the U.S. Department of Education could correct. For a fraction of the cost of the Race to the Top program, we could have a competition to completely reimagine how we assess performance in American schools.

It may seem improbable that a new assessment system could meet all of these criteria right now, but that’s the point of innovation. You set a clear vision—perhaps one that seems impossible to achieve—and you put the smartest people in the country to work investing the time and resources to put “a dent in the universe” with their amazing ideas.

Given the importance of assessment to education, this investment in innovation is essential. And long overdue.

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