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We Must Change Accountability First

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The following is a guest post from David N. Cook, Director of Innovation and Partner Engagement at the Kentucky Department of Education.

For years, we have been told by federal and state policy makers all over the country that we must have a model of education accountability that is high stakes and based on summative assessments designed to measure a student's knowledge of core academic standards. These models must also provide annual measurements in order to ensure that all children are being served and that we can identify schools that aren't serving their children adequately, specifically those children of color and in poverty.

During the same years, thousands of hours of professional learning have been given to teachers and school administrators to assist them in making the transition from a one size fits all model of instruction to a model where each student's pathway is personalized to focus on their strengths and interests. These personalized models have a better chance of measuring each student's knowledge of those standards and thus giving more students the opportunity to be ready for their postsecondary lives.

Even with all this professional learning, the percentage of teachers, schools and administrators who have implemented these next generation models of education is extremely low.

Good teachers and administrators want to implement these personalized models, but they are unlikely to do so because they are slaves to accountability systems that provide little benefit to them or their students.

It amazes me that so many people, particularly those who have the very important goal of making sure that all children have equal access and opportunity, embrace the current systems so strongly. They embrace the notion of annual assessments as a way to ensure that districts are closing achievement gaps and that low performing schools (based on these summative assessments) are identified for poor performance and not closing gaps.

Here is the problem: any system that is based on assessments that are being given at a specific moment in time is inherently flawed. Every teacher in this country will tell you that children don't learn at the same pace so why would we assess them at the same time.

The systems we are using to identify achievement gaps and poor performance are actually CREATING the achievement gaps and poor performance. The reason, is simple, using time based annual summative assessments is the easiest way to record data. I guess it doesn't matter that the data has no correlation to whether students are actually learning the standards.

If we know that two students are learning core academic content on different timelines and we then force those to kids to take an assessment at the same time, we should know that they will score differently and we have manufactured an achievement gap. The scores resulting from those assessments taken on that one day do not mean that the student with the lower score has been purposefully given less than adequate instruction; it means that it may take that student another week to learn the content.

Buddy Berry, superintendent of the Eminence Schools in Kentucky, goes a step further. He says this: "3rd grade teachers teach 3rd grade math content all year and then we give all third grade children a math assessment at the end of the year. Fall comes and we move all those kids up to 4th grade teachers. Those 4th grade teachers start all the kids on the 4th grade math content, regardless of how much of the 3rd grade content they learned, because they have to get them ready for a 4 th grade summative math assessment. We then repeat this process year after year, creating larger and larger gaps in achievement. We are doing a huge disservice to kids that are behind and schools and districts are getting blamed for something out of their control."

Here's an idea: let's begin with the end in mind. Start by designing personalized summative assessment systems that utilize performance assessments, traditional summative tests, and other demonstrations of mastery and give them to students at the point of readiness. The goal should be steady progress toward making sure every child is ready for postsecondary life. The goal should not be measures of proficiency on assessments that are gap creators.

It is exponentially harder to design and implement this system than our current accountability systems, but it's simply the right thing to do. Only then will we truly be able to say that certain schools have large achievement gaps and poor performance because only then will we see what students have truly learned.

You don't understand anything until you learn it more than one way. ~Marvin Minsky

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