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Over on his Ed Week Blog, my colleague Rick Hess has a thoughtful post on a question gripping education policy circles right now: with the advent of new Common Core standards and Common Core-aligned tests, should we pause high stakes accountability systems until instruction is aligned to them and the tests themselves are ready for prime time?
Before I dive too far into this debate, I think it might be helpful to start with a bit of history.
Those with a long enough memory remember that when Arne Duncan announced the federal grants to develop assessments aligned to the Common Core, he promised that they would do everything under the sun. He referred to the Common Core-aligned exams as “An absolute game-changer in public education” saying that they would be “Tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom” and would “Better measure the higher-order thinking skills so vital to success in the global economy of the 21st century.”
He said that the tests would “Help drive the development of a rich curriculum, instruction that is tailored to student needs, and multiple opportunities throughout the school year to assess student learning,” and that the tests would “Assess students by asking them to design products or experiments, to manipulate parameters, run tests, and record data.”
I mean, how can you argue with that?
The problem is that the rubber is meeting the road, and the assessments are looking more like the previous generation of tests than Duncan’s “game-changers.” Now, that is not a knock against the tests. As Deven Carlson pointed out during AEI’s recent conference on the Common Core, developing quality test items is really hard work. It is time consuming and it is expensive. I don’t doubt that these new tests represent a serious improvement on the status quo.
But, given that these tests might not be the silver bullet that some thought they would be, and that there are serious practical and political concerns as we move to them, there are real implications for using these exams to make decisions on hiring and firing teachers and imposing sanctions on schools that fail to meet performance targets.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Rick on any of his claims. I think that there are still serious issues that need to be worked out that run the risk of causing new assessments to do more harm than good, but I do want to put a bit of a wrinkle on his argument. I wonder if by supporting a moratorium, one cedes ground to a group that ultimately does not want to be held accountable, but can hide behind claims of “fairness” and “credibility.”
At our conference, NEA Vice-President Lily Eskelsen said that, “We should never use these tests for high stakes decisions for principals, for teachers, for schools, or for students unless and until we have validated these as indicators of a teacher’s performance or a school’s performance.”
I totally agree with that statement, in the way that I interpret it.
However, I would bet that Lily and I don’t see eye to eye on exactly what that means. For her, how high is that bar? Can tests ever clear it?
In short, will folks who are skeptical of standardized testing ever feel that they are accurate indicators? If they won’t, is courting their support a fool’s errand that runs the risk of running any accountability policy with teeth off the rails? Is backlash unavoidable?
At the end of the day, like Rick, I find myself totally unsatisfied by either answer to this question. I don’t want to see teachers judged for judging’s sake, but I also want to recognize that any measure is imperfect, and we have to do the best we can with the tools that we have available.
Can someone come up with a better answer? Is there a third way?
Feel free to let me know in the comments, or over on twitter (I’m @mq_mcshane). And be on the lookout, starting Monday, June 3rd I’m uncorking a 10-part (yes 10-part) blog series on Common Core implementation issues. Flies, prepare to meet some ointment.
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