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Standardization or Personalization? (Or, how not to fumble the equity ball.)

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This post is by Jenny Davis Poon, Director of the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Connect with Jenny @JDPoon.

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Equity. The concept has been a bit of a football lately in public discourse around deeper learning, assessment, and accountability; and by first appearances, civil rights advocates seem to have formed two distinct teams: those for standardization, and those for personalization. Some equity proponents carry their reasoning down the field toward high-quality standardized assessments for all. They argue that if we don't require states to assess every student every year with the same measuring stick, we will allow schools to turn a blind eye to their underserved populations, and the most at-risk students will receive a lesser education than others. Other proponents (or in some cases, the same advocates) carry equity toward the opposite end zone, stating that standardized assessments have crowded out "real" learning for students, and that the only way to close achievement gaps is through more authentic, personalized learning opportunities including assessments that are performance-based, not multiple choice. As states work to continuously improve assessment systems so that they are high-quality and meaningful for all students, are there common principles that might guide us all to victory?

For many, implementing annual statewide standardized tests represents the surest way to hold schools, districts, states, and even teachers accountable for meeting the needs of all students, especially those most at-risk. No Child Left Behind (NCLB)--a federal act intended "to close the achievement gap with accountability... so that no child is left behind"--tied federal funding to the requirement that all students take common, statewide, annual summative assessments of content knowledge in mathematics, language arts, and science; and that all schools, districts, and states report on student achievement both in aggregate and by student subgroups. In a statement last week, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights upheld the federal government's commitment to equity, urging U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to compel states--or at least those aiming to renew their Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) flexibility waivers--to maintain accountability systems that include "statewide annual assessments that are aligned with college- and career-ready standards." Thanking the U.S. Department of Education for intervening where states and districts are "unable or unwilling to come close to meeting the achievement goals of ESEA--i.e., that all students meet grade level standards within twelve years," the statement represents the viewpoint that without accountability systems based on comparable annual assessment data for all students, many underserved students will not be identified and therefore will not receive the supports and interventions they need the most.  

Other equity proponents come to a different conclusion regarding the use of assessments. They suggest that student-centered inquiry-based instruction, coupled with more authentic performance-based assessments, are the essential common threads in schools that provide equitable learning experiences for students. In a different statement last week to President Obama, Duncan, and Congress, eleven civil rights organizations lamented the failure of NCLB to accomplish its goals and recommended, among other things, a shift to more "informative assessments for meaningful 21st Century learning," including deeper learning skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. Diane Friedlander and Linda Darling-Hammond press further, suggesting in last month's Learning Deeply blog post that ever since NCLB, "the nation has moved to an increasingly inequitable system as low-performing schools, particularly those serving low-income students of color in segregated settings, relied more and more on drill-and-kill rote instruction of basic skills primarily in English and math." In their eyes, the federal government fumbled the ball as the very annual summative tests that were meant to instill equity have in fact squeezed out equitable opportunities for disadvantaged students to have deeper learning experiences that prepare them with "the knowledge and skills [that] are now required for at least 70 percent of jobs."

Some suggest that the two viewpoints are complementary, rather than competing--that states can provide students with deeper learning opportunities and administer statewide standardized tests. In October, CCSSO joined the Council of the Great City Schools in outlining principles for high-quality, meaningful assessments that are part of a coherent system of assessments. The principles also list actions that state and district leaders will take to make sure quality tests are given at every level and that any unnecessary or redundant assessments are eliminated.

To this end, however, some educational leaders who are working hard to create deeper learning experiences for students point to reasons why administering both a system of personalized assessments and the full system of statewide standardized assessments might be untenable, especially at scale.  Citing reasons such as the need to send consistent messages to students and parents about what learning experiences and outcomes are valued; and to provide space and incentives for teachers to invest in harder-to-implement performance-based assessments; these practitioners feel that the requirement to administer the full set of statewide standardized tests makes investing in the shift to deeper learning practices too cumbersome, and far too risky.  

In response, some states are exploring ways to pilot novel combinations of statewide summative assessments (in some grades) and locally-created performance-based assessments (in some or all grades) into a new statewide system that is still able to make annual determinations of progress for all students in all grades. For example, through its Performance Assessment of Competency Education pilot initiative, New Hampshire is field-testing a system that would allow pilot districts to administer common performance-based assessments in all grades, while still requiring statewide summative assessments once in elementary, middle, and high school as an external audit of the performance-based system. CCSSO is supporting New Hampshire and other states with similar interests through its Innovation Lab Network (ILN). For these states, equity means not just monitoring student progress on a common measuring stick, but also continuously improving assessment systems to allow students to exercise voice and choice; capture a broad range of knowledge and skills; provide rich and actionable data to students, teachers, and parents; and remain responsive to student needs.

As states innovate new systems of assessments of deeper learning, they are actively engaging communities around the critical question of how to ensure equitable opportunity to learn, even amidst a pilot process. Considering the pro-standardization argument, how can states guarantee that pilot districts' systems of assessment are comparable and represent an equally rigorous measuring stick as the current statewide summative assessment? Considering the pro-personalization argument, how can states ensure that the opportunity for deeper learning experiences won't be limited to the "high skill and high will" districts, thus creating a two-tiered system?

To support states as they work through these critical questions, CCSSO is working with interested states to develop recommendations for the kinds of readiness efforts and state commitments that are necessary to guide the success of pilots like New Hampshire's PACE initiative. Informed by recent conversations with civil rights advocates as well as the U.S. Department of Education, CCSSO is developing "guardrails" that will help states ensure that any innovations they make will maintain or improve accountability for student learning at all levels, especially among disadvantaged populations. Some key "guardrail" principles are already emerging, such as the commitment to make annual determinations of achievement and progress for all students, even as the methods for making those determinations are subject to innovation; to hold those methods to a level of comparability across districts; and to help build capacity in all districts so that successful pilot systems can scale toward statewide transformation. As a recent article in the Atlantic shows us, if we learn anything from New Hampshire and the years they have devoted to building their pilot system, it is that success will have as much to do with capacity-building and community engagement at the state and local level as it does with divining the right policies, assessments, and accountability algorithms. High expectations, standardized across the state, coupled with well-supported systems of assessments of deeper learning, will help ensure that students--all students--can win.

Illustration by Jennifer Davis Poon.

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