Actual Educators on Reforming US Assessment Paradigm

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The politicians and talking heads argue that they have it figured out— assessment=high-stakes testing for student, teachers, schools, districts, states, nations, the world, the universe. I have discussed high-stakes testing extensively on Cloaking Inequity and an alternative approach to assessing our schools. I have also discussed “assessment” of teacher performance quite frequently (i.e. Can we get teacher evaluation right?: Bill Gates, Tom Brady, and Linda Darling-Hammond and Politicians v. Experts: The Latest on “Value-added” Modeling) So what do actual educators think about assessment? Their voices are so often drowned out in the reform and policy discussion. Well, not today. Without further ado, actual Texas educators on the current assessment paradigm and what we should do to reform our current conceptions of assessment.

In education today we, for the most part, take a one-size fits all approach.  Every student, from early childhood grades to high school, gets a one sheet of paper with one simple number that is supposed to demonstrate the student’s level of learning.  For example, at the end of a student’s 4th grade year, he will get a two digit number for math that indicates how much 4th grade level math he knows.  So then the 82 tells the student, parents, current and future teachers all the relevant information related to the student’s progress in math.  I know what you’re thinking.  That 82 doesn’t really tell me anything.  Does the student know 82% of the math curriculum? Did he master everything up until 82% of the year and then suddenly bomb the rest of the year? Are there particular concepts that the student has mastered, and others, about 18% worth, that he has yet to master?  So, does this student’s 82 mean the same as the other student in the class that also received an 82?  Who knows?  Quality teachers get to know their students in a much more holistic fashion and go much deeper into the student’s mathematical strengths and weaknesses, but then are relegated to sticking a ridiculous, meaningless, two-digit number on a report card.  We must get passed this 1950’s assessment approach.  Schools need to develop assessment methods that allow teachers to assess a student’s knowledge, or memorization of information, as well as the student’s ability to think critically, solve problems, work collaboratively with others, and a whole host of other necessary 21st century skills.  We need to throw out the 100 point scale seen on so many report cards and start with the questions “How can we measure this particular student’s ability to construct knowledge in this particular area?”

-K-12 Principal

Our paradigm of assessment… should first and foremost be one that allows teachers to provide meaningful and engaging learning opportunities for students.  Public school educators should not feel tied to the standards, but rather as though they have them to use as a guide for learning and opposed to a guide of learning. Once teachers have had the chance to teach meaningful curriculum in a way that keeps students interested, they should be allowed to assess students in a manner that truly reflects what they have learned as opposed to how well they have been able to do on one test administered on one day. Portfolio assessments, essays, and group projects are all great ways for teachers to assess knowledge at the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning.

-Parent and K-12 School District Administrator

Our paradigm of assessment rests on a test that indicates a student’s proficiency in what has been taught according to our state standards.  We utilize this assessment to determine what we somehow missed in the teaching of our children.  We test and measure in one day a whole year’s worth of understanding.  It doesn’t take into account any factors that impacts how a student performs on that particular day but it reflects a whole year of understanding.  Our paradigm of assessment should include proficiency of state standards and a holistic perspective of the skills we are teaching children in order to prepare for life.  I read in a book recently that if we were to live to be 70 years old, we only spend 9% of our time in schools.  If we are only testing to measure what the student needs to learn for the next grade level, how are we preparing them for the other 91% of their time outside of schools?

-K-12 School Administrator

My paradigm for assessment would include any instrument that demonstrates individual growth. I think that an assessment should assess knowledge not skills because the skills should be embedded within the application of the knowledge. The aim for each assessment should be critical thinking and higher order skills. All scholars should be individually assessed and a yearly plan drafted, implemented, and reviewed at progress intervals to ensure yearly goals are on target to be met. This individuation would mean that each year scholars would all start at different entry points upon entering each grade level; therefore, actual grades would collapse and have less meaning and scholars would be grouped according the BOY knowledge assessment instead of age. Scholars would intersect each core subject at different places. Writing, communication, think-alouds, projects based on knowledge application, open-ended questions, scholar-generated tests, and reflection projects would be some methods in which the scholars demonstrated progression toward goals. Another assessment piece would be portfolios that would follow the scholar throughout her academic career and culminate in an over-arching synthesis of ideas upon high school or early college graduation.

-K-12 District Administrator

The current paradigm of assessment in higher education is one based on quantified metrics of worth deemed valuable by entities that exist largely outside of higher education. The US News and World Report rankings are what truly matter to institutions of higher education, for these rankings bring perceived prestige and corresponding monetary and other resource support to institutions. Thus, all institutions engage in a sort of prestige rate race, in which the never-ending goal is to use methods of  “assessment” to show the, seemingly, increasingly positive things universities are doing for their students. For example, universities might report on increased graduation rates, placement into graduate schools, job placement rates, etc., yet these might not be indicative of the true experience a student is receiving from his or her education. A better method of assessment would be to look at the holistic development of the student. Yes, employment rates and test scores matter, but what about engaging in research projects that gain first-hand, qualitative knowledge of students and their experiences in college? What are schools truly doing to measure and understand the lived experiences of all students and assess how prepared students truly are for life’s myriad of diverse challenges?

-University Administrator and Researcher

Assessment in Texas is a bludgeon and a shiny, gold medal.  A club to beat the “bad” schools with, and a medal to reward the “good” schools with.  The catch is in how we define good and bad, and do we have a good way of measuring good and bad. There once was a 6th through 8th grade school called Super Middle School.  They were so super that all 300 students arriving in the 6th grade could read on a 9th grade level.  Their Language Departments decided that instead of teaching literature, they would allow the students to self select movies to watch for the next three years and to do all their reading at home.  At the end of their 8th grade year, those same 300 students were still reading on the 9th grade level.  No worries.  100% still passed the 8th grade STAAR test and Super Middle School was once again a TEA Exemplary Rated school. Down the road a bit, there was a 6th through 8th grade school called Tuffluk Middle School.  Their 300 6th graders arrived reading on a 1st grade level.  Their teachers worked so hard for three years that when the students finally got to the end of their 8th grade year they were reading on a 7th grade level.  The staff had increased their reading level 6 grades in three years!  Now that is some spectacular teaching!  Unfortunately, 100% failed the 8th Grade STAAR test, and Tuffluk Middle School was rated an Unacceptable school, fired all the teachers, and reconstituted as an early college prep school. I use these two extreme examples to illustrate what our accountability system measures.  It does not measure just good teaching or bad teaching, it measures what kids can do on a test developed in secret by a for-profit multi-national corporation. What should accountability look like?  First, it should measure what we are after.  If we want students to learn 21st Century skills, why not use techniques beyond multiple choice?  The International Baccalaureate program has a strong Middle Years Program which ends in a culminating project created around a theme.  Along the way, students are rated using a standards-based system that gives them formative feedback.  Second, schools should be rated using multiple measures.  There is nothing wrong with a little pencil and paper as long as we recognized that it does not tell the whole story.  Schools can create portfolios of work encompassing all facets of the job schools do from the traditional subjects to art and physical fitness. The one thing we do not want to do is stick with what we’ve got.  One school gets a gold medal while the other gets clubbed to death.

-Concerned K-12 Educator

Our current paradigm of assessment invalidates the socio-political environment through where students produce significance with the world. The educational bureaucracy is an intoxicated view of student learning. I remember my first day at the UT orientation session at the Jester dormitory. The freshman orientation advisor was in the process of getting us pumped up for the school year by raffling door prizes. He stated, “The way we’re going to do this is for the first person to guess the car that Amy, another orientation advisor, drives!” I was so excited that I raised my hand and yelled, “A mini truck!” I had never felt so embarrassed from the looks I received that day, and slowly began to realize that my childhood environment had a significant impact on my interpretation of the world. For this reason, I envision learning as the experiential interaction with the world through the application of concepts to demonstrate comprehension and creativity. Our paradigm for assessments should be a collection of blended projects which require the learner to extend the application of his current knowledge. Assessment in K-12 should be experiential collection of applications across a wide range of sciences and liberal arts. Measuring this learning would require students to present their portfolio collection to demonstrate their knowledge and defend their acquisition of new learning.

-K-12 EL School Leader

Our paradigm of assessment should be a portfolio of ways to see if students have a mastery of the content learned.  Students should be able to have a thorough portfolio with assessments from presentations, writings, projects, summative assessment and formative assessment.  Students should have some choice on how they want to show mastery of their learning so that there is a sense of ownership to their learning.  Providing students with choice and them being able to justify why they chose that form of assessment to show mastery of their learning is another way of giving students that sense of ownership to their learning and challenging them.  This way of assessing students will build our students 21st century skills: such as problem-solving, reflection, creativity, critical thinking, learning to learn, risk-taking, collaboration, and entrepreneurship.

-K-12 Educator

Our paradigm of assessment in K-12 education is that there is one set of absolute truths and the purpose of assessment is to determine whether or not students have mastered “the” standards.  Current high-stakes testing and standards do not take student perspectives or other factors that impact student learning into consideration.  The reauthorization of the elementary and secondary education act, also known as No Child Left Behind, requires that all schools met federal accountability standards.  Schools and districts that do not meet accountability standards are labeled failing and sanctions are imposed.  The system of accountability and high-stakes testing currently utilized does not include provisions to measure student growth.  Our paradigm of assessment should include student growth measures.  I believe there are schools that meet federal accountability standards that do not increase individual student achievement because individual student growth is not measured.  Conversely, I believe that there are also schools that provide high quality education and are working diligently to close the achievement gap that are not recognized or at-risk of being reconstituted because they fail to meet federal accountability standards.

-K-12 Educator

Who should we trust on assessment? Talking Heads (Michelle Rhee)? Politicians?  Or educators?

p.s. One more oldie, but goodie: Walking Away From High Stakes Tests, A Noble Lie

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Categories: High-Stakes Testing

Author:Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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6 Comments on “Actual Educators on Reforming US Assessment Paradigm”

  1. Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D.
    June 30, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    There’s a new Discussion Group: CCSS – Common Core State Standards Network in Linkedin. A discussion that I responded to relates to this CI discussion.
    Erik’s discussion was: “I’m getting word of a speaker traveling to public meetings to drum up opposition to CCSS because they are part of a “big government” effort to dumb down public education. I’ll check it out.”
    My response was:
    I’m a teacher and it’s a point of view as to where you sit; in a classroom or in the state legislature. Politically, for states, $billions of (RttT) “Race to the Top” dollars were offered to States like mine, CA, by the Federal Government. Our state was “encouraged” to join CCSS. On the other hand, on the ground as teachers, we’ve been told at two one week seminars that this is a “bottom up” process. We were told that we can decide on how to create “rigor” in units and lesson plans to be shared across districts and states on-line. This is a departure from NCLB. It was claimed in the workshop by facilitators that this is a ” bottom up” process, not “top down” as compared to the “essentialist” NCLB process. With NCLB questions on academic content were out of the hands of teachers who were simply to deliver the lessons using NCLB pacing guides. On another Blog I said; Calling standards, “common” does not make them so. Implementation has begun thanks to the $billions being spent across 45 states, thanks to RttT incentives to make it happen. Despite the “incentive,” Texas, America’s largest lower 48 state with a large population and the place where NCLB started is refusing to participate. Personally, I agree with the theories imbedded in CC much more than NCLB. However, from what I’ve observed in the seminars some teachers are on the fence. Many other teachers seem to be open to the change and administrators less so. The lack of congruence between administrators and teachers could become a problem long term. Part of the problem is the lack of clarity as to how the new CC teaching and learning process will be evaluated across schools, districts, and states. Also, many openly expressed concern about lack of clarity with respect to State Assessments. Questions as to how the State Assessment of CC will be done remains unclear in the context of formative assessments by teachers. Finally, questions as to how CC State Assessments will be used to evaluate teachers, evaluate schools, evaluate districts how they’ll replace API and AYP e-published results is a concern. It seems there are many unanswered questions.
    From Linda: Hi Monty, I have a group in CT that is working on getting some good information out to parents and educators about CCSS. Would it be okay to use your latest post in an e-mail we are sending to our own BOE?
    Linda. Of course you may use this. It’s a public Blog. My three primary concerns are: (1) potential lack of congruence between teachers and administrators, (2) lack of clarity between how “formative assessments” by teachers, and “summary assessments” are to be used by states. How will they be used to make a public judgment on the effectiveness of teachers, schools, and districts, and, (3) the role of “privatization” e.g., corporations and foundations who out of self- interest for profits and influence are pushing this? For example, with #3, only two corporations (a monopoly?) will “lead” with the states, a multitude of sub-contractors to implement this! Many folks outside of “public education” are positioned to make a lot of money and in 10-15 years. As has happened with NCLB, only then will research be able to evaluate if CCSS worked! There really is a “public interest” for tax payers, as $billions of dollars are at stake. To borrow on former Pres. Ike’s comment, i.e., the “Military Industrial Complex” I ask: Is this the new Education Industrial Complex with e-technology, publishing and associated companies driving the process?

    • July 1, 2013 at 9:15 am #

      I perused the LinkedIn group and found many posts related to promotion of particular curriculum resources. Not sure who profits,but as you mentioned, there is big money to be spent and made here. Education reform shouldn’t hinge on privateers selling a variety of commodities to school systems struggling to meet amorphous parameters.

      • Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D.
        July 1, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

        Lisa: My sense of this, from participation with some Linkedin discussions is that those who are into “promotion of curriculum resources” -and, I think drumming up business to do expensive workshops for school districts on CCSS- is where many are, -as you say. I found that many don’t really want to talk about the POLICY as it relates to reform. It’s as if the students need to support those with the education, i.e., as you say, those wanting to make profits the Fed. and States distribute with money that perhaps should go directly to school systems. Those, “struggling to meet amorphous parameters” and maybe the $billions should just let districts simply work to meet their local educational obligations independently? The policy debate is in some respects about a national standards system and its implications v. the local control of education. Thanks for your succinct reply.

  2. June 30, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    The school board members complained “they are testing on common core -before- they let us know even what it is.” I’m thinking- baseline. They need a baseline score so they can know the worse case of flunking and then they can manipulate the scores to what they want for the next years.They can make the scores whatever they want and artificially ‘show improvement.’ Then the Orange superintendent said “we need to manage the message.” So then School Board member Flynn gushes that the CHAMBER OF COMMERCE will do ADS for common core. For free. Oh, totally unrelated I’m sure the person that told her that, that runs the chamber, is generous to offer “personnel training” to the schools. Tax dollars used for a consulting contract. Gees. Only in Florida. Oh for 2013 and they already flunked over 50% of Orange students and the county is 57% in poverty. So now we await the test from on high- the rich states with less than 20% poverty, to our Blue Collar Capital of The USA.Think they will flunk to the streets much?

  3. Denise Hull
    July 1, 2013 at 12:32 am #

    Current assessment is a one-size-fits-all reaction to a failing school system. So what can be done?
    1. Make parents accountable. When students begin in kindergarten at our school, they don’t know colors, numbers, letters, how to hold a pencil or crayon, or how to work with Playdough. How is this the teachers’ fault?

    2. Hold our government officials responsible. When poor children or second-language children come to school, they drag in many complications that other children don’t. If we are responsible for teaching them, government officials should be responsible for our borders and their care (not the schools).

    3. Hold the children accountable. Some students just don’t want to learn or aren’t able to learn. Not all students are Einsteins, after all.

    4. Hold the teachers responsible only after all these conditions are met.

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