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What Should Schools Be Assessing - and How?

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In this era of the school turnaround, what should a struggling school be turning into - and how can we know if it's working?

This question seems particularly relevant today, a day after Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel officially shuttered 49 of his city's neighborhood schools, and Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson formally required 100 of her city's teachers to reapply for their jobs at two historically struggling campuses.

In both places, the moves were ostensibly to spur systemic improvement in school systems that have historically been among the nation's worst. But leaving politics aside for a moment, I keep wondering: What will be the focal point of these new schools and school leaders - and what should it be?

If you ask policymakers and some of the field's leading voices, you'll hear a familiar answer: reading and math scores. But ask a career educator like Ron Berger, and you'll hear something else. "To build a new culture, a new ethic, you need a focal point - a vision - to guide the direction for reform. The particular spark I try to share as a catalyst is a passion for beautiful student work and developing conditions that can make this work possible."

The contrast between these two answers - student scores vs. student work - tells you everything you need to know about modern American school reform. And it's a contrast that's brought to visual light in the latest chapter of the 10-part video series, A Year at Mission Hill.

Like a small but dedicated number of similar schools across the country, Mission Hill has placed high-quality student work at the center of the learning experience. That means a greater degree of investment is required on the part of both students and teachers. It means a greater degree of involvement is required on the part of community members and parents. And it means a greater degree of insight is possible into each young person's strengths, weaknesses, and passions.

"Despite skepticism that an alternative to high stakes tests could work, schools across the country have done just that," says Ann Cook, a New York City principal and co-founder of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a statewide network of schools that have developed assessment systems that result in valuable teacher feedback and vigorous student work.

Indeed, the more you learn about performance assessments like the ones at Mission Hill or in New York - in which students must publicly demonstrate what they've learned and share examples of what they have produced - the more you wonder why we continue to tolerate anything less.

Would such a system of assessment, if we applied it nationally, cost money? Yes. But consider this: as prison enrollments have quadrupled since 1980, state budgets for corrections have increased nearly three times as fast as budgets for education. And whereas all current expenditures for testing are, in effect, one-way investments - with little ongoing professional development or learning opportunities for teachers to improve the quality of their practice (most teachers, after all, don't even get their scores until the students have moved on) - a national framework for assessment that mirrors the type of work we see happening at Mission Hill would provide a powerful form of embedded professional development that helps both teacher and student better understand what was learned, and how, and why.

If such a sea change occurred, Ron Berger has a pretty good idea of what it would look like. "If schools assumed they were going to be assessed by the quality of student behavior and work evident in the hallways and classrooms - rather than on test scores - the enormous energy poured into test preparation would be directed instead toward improving student work, understanding, and behavior. And so instead of working to build clever test-takers, schools would feel compelled to spend time building thoughtful students and good citizens."

Now that sounds like a worthwhile investment.

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