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NCLB Was Right: Assessment Can Change Instruction

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This post is by Ben Kornell, Executive Director of Envision Learning Partners.

I can vividly recall the first time my principal came in for an unannounced classroom observation. As a first-year teacher, it was a moment of anxiety and my room full of 12-year olds knew it. Fortunately, I had planned a dynamite lesson at 1a.m. the night before and my first two weeks of culture building were starting to settle in. Once the students realized the principal was not carting anyone off to the main office, we moved quickly into the Language Arts lesson from our textbook: an adaptation of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

Within 10 minutes the principal left, after depositing an ominous note at my desk. Was it a note of encouragement, an excoriation of my nascent teaching skills, a recommended reading to deepen my instructional practice?

"You should be past page 165 this week."

I was behind on the pacing guide. The principal had been checking on every classroom. It was what I, and he, were measured on, and as the saying goes: "what gets measured, gets done." 

By the following week I was past page 190 and right on track.

Like many of us who grew up in the era of No Child Left Behind, these kinds of interactions cemented our disdain for the scripted curriculums, drill-and-kill strategies, and high-stakes testing of the NCLB era. Sometimes the district micromanaged my principal, who in turn micromanaged us. Other times we were left to our own devices, as our school schedule evolved to 3.5 hours of Language Arts and 2 hours of Math.

While many have pointed out the deep flaws of NCLB, when we step back, we must acknowledge two things NCLB got right:

  1. There is an achievement gap;
  2. When we change the test, we change instruction.

Assessments are an undeniably powerful leverage point to change what happens in the classroom. When assessments change, the entire system evolves to meet the new bar. We look at student data differently, we structure our teacher training and support differently, and we change our instructional practice so that our students are "successful." The Education Assessment Movement dates back far before NCLB and has parallels in industries like Healthcare and Social Work because "what gets measured, gets done." Ultimately, the "teach to the test" mantra would have been right on, if only our assessments had been designed to measure what matters. Instead, we got a test that valued content over competency and cramming over critical thinking. Today, we know better.

The Deeper Learning movement was born (or re-born from the Coalition of Essential Schools) in opposition to the NCLB world, but ultimately we must embrace the two big truths of NCLB. The obvious argument for rigorous Deeper Learning assessments is: How do we know that ALL students are developing DL competencies?  But the more important argument is: How do we shift instruction for a generation of teachers--shaped by NCLB--toward a Deeper Learning approach?

The good news is that performance assessments like those released last week by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE) are rapidly mainstreaming. Our ability to calibrate to common rubrics is increasing due to technology and national support providers like Envision Learning Partners. And, of course, the Common Core has moved us one step toward a national system with real performance tasks.

For the past five years Envision has been working to transform NCLB schools into Deeper Learning schools across the country. While we provide professional development around project-based learning and instructional best practices, we have discovered that performance assessments are the critical lever to moving students, teachers, and administrators forward along their school transformation journey. Our culminating Portfolio Defense provides a public moment that synergizes student learning and Deeper Learning instructional practices that galvanize the school community by demonstrating what is truly possible; the assessments we design build towards that moment and rightly shape how students are prepared in the classroom. While our practices are far from those embraced in the NCLB era, we are seeing the two truths of NCLB playing out daily.

For all of us in this important work, when we think about how to spread Deeper Learning, we would do well to remember those fundamental teacher moments--like that first principal classroom visit. In that moment, what should matter most to the teacher? To the principal? To the students and families? Whatever the answer: if we plan to measure it, it will get done.

 

 

 

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