The US Education Department has a rightly deserved bad rap in our corner of the ed. blogosphere; I too think it is outrageous how high stakes testing is distorting the educational values of our schools.
Duncan recently in a speech acknowledged himself the deep limitations of conventional standardized testing (“Students, parents, and educators know there is more to a sound education than picking the right selection for a multiple choice question”), and I think he deserves praise for what he is calling Assessment 2.0, or alternatively what both he and I have been calling next-generation assessments. This one speech does not redeem Duncan, but we would do well to reinforce whatever positive messages we do hear from him and his department. (New York Times article about the speech).
At St. Gregory in my leadership, I made clear to my constituents that I wanted us to be held accountable for educational excellence, and I believe that by using external measurements, we are able to demonstrate that accountability. I think too that we can use this data for marketing our school as we seek to grow it. But most of all, I want to know how well our school is doing compared to others so I can receive the hard truth about where we are not doing well enough, and I can know where to focus for improvement.
I do think we should evaluate ourselves by our schol's own standards, but not only by them; it is too easy for us to be seduced by our own biases. We know our schools, and we love our schools, and sometimes it is hard to see our blind spots or fully appreciate where we may be under-achieving.
But that I seek and appreciate external measurements doesn't mean I love or like scantron multiple choice bubble tests of basic skills that are administered once a year to “grade” a teacher or school. I don't.
What I like in “next-gen” assessments is, first, that we can now evaluate higher order thinking skill development in tests that are not multiple choice, but authentic assessments where students write essays reviewing and responding critically to documents and offering thoughtful solutions to complex problems.
Second, I am appreciative of new assessments which are computer adaptive, able to shape themselves to individual student proficiency levels, give immediate feedback to students, teachers and parents, and provide the information we need to better personalize instruction.
These two “2.0” approaches are exactly what Secretary Duncan calls for in his speech. As for the first, he says:
new assessments will better measure the higher-order thinking skills so vital to success in the global economy of the 21st centu
ry… To be on track today for college and careers, students need to show that they can analyze and solve complex problems, communicate clearly, synthesize information, apply knowledge, and generalize learning to other settings.
The PARCC consortium will test students’ ability to read complex text, complete research projects, excel at classroom speaking and listening assignments, and work with digital media. Problems can be situated in real-world environments, where students perform tasks or include multi-stage scenarios and extended essays.
As for the second, he says:
Most of the assessment done in schools today is after the fact and designed to indicate only whether students have learned. Not enough is being done to assess students’ thinking as they learn to boost and enrich learning, and track student growth. [new] assessments will make widespread use of smart technology. They will provide students immediate feedback, computer adaptive testing, and incorporate accommodations for a range of students.
The SMARTER consortium will test students by using computer adaptive technology that will ask students questions pitched to their skill level, based on their previous answers. And a series of interim evaluations during the school year will inform students, parents, and teachers about whether students are on track.
Better assessments, given earlier in the school year, can better measure what matters—growth in student learning. And teachers will be empowered to differentiate instruction in the classroom, propelling the continuous cycle of improvement in student learning that teachers treasure.
It is important to say that no assessment will ever be perfect: each and every one has and will have certain drawbacks and limitations; indeed, one of the reasons I advocate multiple measures is precisely because any individual measurement will inherently be flawed, and so we must make sure no one tool becomes too powerful.
Also, we must not ever substitute data and “evidence” to substitute for an educator's judgement. Data inform judgement, but data must never replace discretion and wise judgment.
But let's not refuse to improve data collection because of the inappropriate abuse of poor data; let's seek to improve it and use it appropriately.
One major quibble with Duncan's celebration of Assessment 2.0: his ignorance of the fact that both of these two approaches already exist. In his speech he states repeatedly that we will have these two types of assessments, “for the first time” in 2014. Regular readers of mine know that at my school, St. Gregory College Prep in Tucson, we are already doing both: we are using the College & Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA) for the first category and the NWEA's Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) for the second. Each of them corresponds nearly exactly to the categories as outlined by Secretary Duncan.
We should use the best tools available to know how our kids are doing, and how we can help them do better. Let's move on from outdated techniques and use new and more sophisticated tools to improve learning.