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How Do We Lead Toward a Better Assessment System?

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Accountability: a word that strikes new fear in the hearts of many educators these days.  The wave that started with No Child Left Behind has swelled to a tsunami. The nature of accountability has changed and, in that change, we have come to associate accountability with punishment and embarrassment.  There are reasons for that.

Educators have been placed in the position of having to teach with new thinking, in a new way, in which they had little time to be trained.  Teachers are observed by supervisors, who may understand the nuances and substance of the changed requirements even less than their teachers. The students are tested on new standards and methods in order to demonstrate that students are growing in their abilities and that the teachers are teaching successfully. But there is no evidence that the results reveal what we are told they do. And the results are made public and will likely impact evaluation and employment.  This is being done all at once.   

This is a substantive change. The old system, for both students and teachers, was simple, individual, and private. It was between the teacher and the parent or between the teacher and the principal or department chair.  For students, accountability was the grade on papers sent home.  It was the number or letter on the report card.  Parents understood the shorthand of those grades.  Accountability was personal, from teacher to parent about their child. There was no evidence that those assessments of student work were either valid or reliable.  Classroom assessments were not held to those standards of development.  However, they were respected and used as the traditional means of communicating feedback to students and parents about progress, for sorting in order to know where a child stood compared to others, and for motivation. If there were questions about the nature of the message, a meeting would be held between the parent and the teacher. What would happen if parents were receiving a continuously surprising low set of grades?  Questions would be raised about the teachers' ability to teach the content and skills, the students' ability to learn, and the confluence of possibilities causing this failure would be addressed immediately, and personally.

Dispersed throughout a student's school career, there may have been standardized tests used as benchmarks along the way.  Often they either told parents and schools how "smart" the student was or if the student was performing below, on, or above grade level.  All things teachers and parents could easily understand. Since No Child Left Behind was first enacted, standardized tests became a national behemoth, misunderstood and misused.  Suddenly, an externalization of this process was legislated.  The privacy and personal nature of this accountability system was ripped from the hands of parents and teachers and replaced with a not-so-local solution.  Standardized tests were added to the previous and private assessment and grading systems and the public results became the measure. What was understood as, for example, a bar for 3rd graders was no longer the spot at which to aim. The results of the journey for both students and teachers in these new and uncharted waters were shared publically.

Alfie Kohn proposes we give grades for three purposes, to sort, to motivate, and to give feedback.  But what do standardized tests do? The standardized tests we are now giving are intended to measure the new and higher standards to which we are now expected to teach. However,  Betts and Grogger found:

...that higher standards may help some students at the expense of others. Whereas higher standards may lead more motivated students to increase effort, they may cause others to give up as the standard moves beyond their reach. Thus policies involving higher standards could potentially have adverse distributional consequences.

There is a possibility of all this standardization may cause a widening of the achievement gap.  Betts and Grogger report that the very intention to raise learning standards in order to raise student achievement may "work against students from groups with historically poor performance, such as racial minorities and students in inner-city schools." None of us want that.

The transition through a change is what needs attention.  A change can be negotiated or simply announced. The work comes in leading the transitions.  The work of William Bridges in his book Managing Transitions, clearly outlines the first steps required in successful change as the transitions through "ending, losing, and letting go."  We need to decide what parts of our practice must end and what parts of our practice can remain.  We need to identify what we are losing. We need to begin the long and arduous practice of letting go. In the case of assessment, transitions also involve learning.  If we want to resist the standardized testing movement and its use, we have to become more knowledgeable about classroom assessment and the standards for reliability and validity in order to raise their value as the respected vehicle for measuring student progress. 

In this process, it isn't just teachers who have to go through the transition process; the leaders, students, and parents have to transition as well.  Letting go of a process that was used for over a century requires a shift for everyone.  Leaders have to attend to the the letting go with skill.  The facilitation of the journey through this process is difficult but offers the alternative to polarization and for and against positions. 

In Bridges' model, we have to understand and describe the change in detail, identify all who are going to suffer loses, and be prepared to be sympathetic to the reactions, and over reactions, to the change.  Compensating for those losses is an essential step in the process as well. In Bridges terms, ask yourself "What can I give back to balance what's been taken away?" (p.31). In this case, since the standardized testing is the issue, giving back by offering training and knowledge about assessment and testing can offer an opportunity to not only be more informed, but to be armed with a counter conversation about the value of properly created classroom assessments, and the place standardized tests should take in the educational landscape.  Without going through this informed, open, honest, courageous process, we will remain in opposition to those who are leading a reform that relies on standardized tests.

Perhaps, if we produce better local assessments, and use them to inform instruction, give constructive feedback, and help motivate our students, the standardized tests will fall aside and take their proper place as quiet snapshots of national progress while we attend to our students school by school.  The standards to which we are now teaching may need to be adjusted.  The tests most assuredly must be reconsidered.  But that does not let us off the hook.  We must learn about how to make local tests reliable and valid, rich, rigorous, meaningful, and well aligned to what is being taught.  In actuality, the power of accountability resides in the contact (or contract) between teacher, student and parent. Ultimately, the public knows that and hopes that we get it right.

Bridges, William. (2009). Managing Transitions: Making the most of change. 3rd edition. Philadelphia:  Perseus Books Group

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