Let’s hope for smarter and balanced uses for our assessments

I hope everyone’s year has gotten off to a great start.  The first few months of the year are always a roller coaster ride, between getting to know our students, creating new lessons, parent conferences, open houses, and statewide testing, we cover so much ground in a short period of time.  I have tried to use some of my time to research and learn about the upcoming implementation of the Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessments.  In doing so I recently came across this article on Twitter, An Open Letter to the Architects of the Common Core by John Merrow (http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=6411 also printed below).  It is an interesting post and the comments that followed it on the blog are equally as interesting.

I believe wholeheartedly that there is a need to reform public education, and I understand that the new Common Core standards are an attempt at reform (and I like them for the most part), however every time I hear/read about “standardizing curriculum” or “regulating data” I can’t help but think of the factory model of education so many of our schools still utilize, and I wonder, is this reform?  The article highlights the complexities that go into learning and assessment, and questions whether or not the current plans for assessment can factor in enough measures when determining success or achievement.  While “data driven accountability” and “value added assessment” are touted as strong parts of the education reform movement that is wrapped around the implementation of the CCSS, we need to consider where the data is coming from that supports such initiatives and make allowances for the variety that exists across our country.  It seems to me that many of our national and regional initiatives seem to be driven by data collected from large urban school districts or at the behest of private groups far removed from the education process, such as the National Governor’s Association and Achieve.

While many of the measures to assess teachers, students, and curriculum, including some of the current assessments of the Common Core, may provide us with some useful information, they ought not to be considered the standard measure of student success, let alone the final answer to education reform.  Much like the article states, my concern over the hyper focus on standards reform comes not from the standards themselves, but from how they will be measured.  As an educator I have spent a lot of time discussing and learning about the different types of and uses for assessments.  It is hard to imagine a teacher who hasn’t been trained in formative and summative measures and isn’t expected to use a variety of assessment tools effectively.  Perhaps we should ask the same of our municipalities.  Perhaps we need to look back upon the recent history of education reform and testing, and assess its effectiveness.  And perhaps, for true reform to occur, we need to ensure that the types of assessments made this time around, and more importantly the data generated from them, be smarter and balanced.


An Open Letter to the Architects of the Common Core by John Merrow on 29. May, 2013  http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=6411

Dear Architects of the Common Core,

How do you propose to test the skills and capabilities learned by the 8th graders at King Middle School in Portland, Maine?  If you missed our recent [PBS] NewsHour piece, you may watch it here.  In just 11:38, correspondent John Tulenko and producer David Wald brilliantly capture how a 4-month ‘deeper learning’ project changed the lives of Liva Pierce, Emma Schwartz, Nat Youngrin and other young students.

John made four trips to Portland, beginning last October. He was there when the two science teachers explained the project: the kids were going to imagine and then design their own energy-generating devices that would improve people’s live.

The kids were clearly intimidated.  Liva Pierce told John, “That’s way too much. I don’t know the first thing about electricity. I don’t know the first thing about windmills. I am totally going to fail.”

Emma Schwartz was equally pessimistic: “First of all, I can’t build anything, and I have never handled a screwdriver in my entire life or an electric drill. Like, this isn’t going to work.”

So what happened?  Over the next four months the King School 8th graders worked in teams to build robots (and held a competition).  Next they read extensively about wind power and then constructed their own wind turbines (another competition).  These regular kids in a regular public school learned by failing, just as we do in life.  For example, Nat Youngrin’s sound-controlled robot failed during the competition because as Nat explained, he hadn’t anticipated that the cheers of the crowd would drown out the sound of his clapped commands, making his system inoperable.  But Nat didn’t quit; he learned and moved on.

The culmination of the final phase–designing energy-generating devices–was not a competition but a public performance.  Each 8th grader had to get up in front of a large crowd of fellow students and adults from the community to explain their device’s function, the science behind it, and to ‘sell’ its practicality.  Emma and Liva were poised, confident and determined.  In just four months they had been changed–I would say ‘transformed.’

What knowledge, skills and capabilities did Emma, Liva, Nat and the others acquire? Here’s a short list: the value of teamwork; the importance of grit and tenacity; the science of electricity, wind, et cetera; the art and science of public speaking/communication; the importance of citizenship and making a contribution to society; confidence in their own power to create a meaningful life; and, finally, a sense of wonder.  (I would also wager that the adults came away with a new appreciation for education, students and teachers.)

Is that overstating it? Watch the piece and decide for yourself.

But here’s my problem.  I am following the Common Core story with interest and am pleased that we are going to raise standards and challenge our students more.  I know the Common Core lists “Speaking and Listening” as one of its four English Language Arts priorities for grades 6-12, and that is broken down to include “comprehension and collaboration” and “presentation of knowledge and ideas.”  That is, you folks are using all the right words and saying all the right things.  That’s a step, or two, in the right direction.

However, so far I have not seen anything that convinces me that our system is anywhere near ready to test for the skills and capabilities that we witnessed those 8th graders acquire at King Middle School.

If past is prologue, things that aren’t being tested won’t end up being taught. It’s not just kids who ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”  These days, when test scores determine which adults get fired, they’re probably the first ones to ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”

If it’s not tested, then say goodbye to that King School program and others like it.

After all, what sort of standardized paper-and-pencil (or computer-based) assessment can test for grit, teamwork, communication, innovation, ambition and the like?  To test those skills and capabilities, we would have to be willing to go back to the days when we trusted teachers to assess their students.  We would have to back away from our current small-minded policies that embrace test results as a way to judge, threaten and punish teachers–and instead use tests and assessments as we once did, to improve learning and teaching.

I predict that parents, teachers and students would go to the ramparts before they’d allow marvelous programs like King Middle School’s “Expeditionary Learning” program to disappear.

And I also hope that millions of people will watch our report and say “Let’s do that in our schools because that’s what we want our kids to experience, and because that’s what we want our kids to be: confident and capable, just like those kids in Portland.”

Even if it means saying to hell with the tests.


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