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Ed Reform and Innovation: The End of the Big Test Is in Sight

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How could anyone be in favor of innovative learning and an education reform agenda that includes standardized tests? An angry comment, in response to our look at project-based explorations at High Tech High (featured in this new film), questioned the paradox of innovation and education reform.

The link is equity. Schools of choice and measurement are both EdPolicy efforts to promote more equitable outcomes. Like any intervention, there are good examples and unintended consequences. Let's consider the upside and downside of EdReform and innovation and what we can learn about the path forward.

EdReform. Let's face it, the modern version of EdReform, as ensconced in NCLB, didn't work as well as hoped. While the equity-seeking consensus that supported the 2002 bill was inspiring, it fell apart before the iterative development needed to fix the flaws could begin.

Intended
Unintended
Standards Ensures consistently high expectations Narrows and segments learning into a checklist
Assessments Expose learning gaps and underserved populations Weak tests are used for too many purposes
Accountability Promotes quality options Inadequately measures progress on a broad set of outcomes
Test-based Evaluation Supports the goal of a good teacher in every classroom Inadequately measures contribution of a team on a broad set of outcomes
Together Guides incremental improvement Can lead to mind-numbing test prep; reinforces age cohort model

Modern EdReform was baked in an era of data poverty, a time when no one other than teachers knew how their students were doing. When I became a school district superintendent 20 years ago I had almost no information about the level and rate of learning of our students. We were flying blind. My second year was informed by state test data which at least provided some comparable information to monitor progress and quality.

Because we had so little data, the new state tests were used for everything including improving instruction, measuring school quality, evaluating teachers, and managing student matriculation. With more accountability around decisions in each category, the tests grew in importance, and they got longer. With tight state budgets and psychometric fixation on reliability, the tests relied heavily on easy to score multiple choice questions.

This formula of strong accountability with inadequate instruments led, in many districts with weak leadership, to focus on mind numbing test preparation, which is a terrible unintended consequence perpetrated most frequently on children from low-income families that most needed powerful learning experiences.

As part of the stimulus bill, the Race to the Top grant program included funds for development of better tests. Two state consortia designed tests with more reading and writing and more challenging problem solving. They decided against automatic scoring (despite good evidence of effectiveness) so the tests were expensive. Because the stakes remained so high for the everything-for-everyone tests, they grew into a giant week long affair. For good (and sometimes political) reasons, it looks like America called BS on that idea.

Now that we're a few years into the age of data abundance, good schools know how every student is doing every day in every subject, making the idea of stopping school for a week to find out what kids know seems ridiculous. Students in technology rich classrooms receive constant performance feedback. Visualization tools turn piles of data into simple graphs allowing students, teachers, and parents to monitor progress, and to use the right information at the right time for the right decision. (See Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles .)

Give both progress and protest, it is clear that we're at the beginning of the end of large scale summative assessment. Unfortunately, we don't have well informed environments at scale. As soon as we figure out how to help teachers combineformative data from many sources and how to measure student academic growth on a comparable basis, states will be able to ditch week-long end of year tests in favor of lightweight alternatives.

Innovation. EdReform (narrowly defined) is an attempt to use public policy to drive improvement in the education system we have. Innovation is creating new learning environments, experiences and tools in order to achieve dramatic outcome improvement.

While I support the equity aims of reform, I decided four years ago that trench warfare of EdReform was becoming increasingly unproductive. I spent much of the last decade supporting EdReform efforts but will spend the rest of my career on innovation because it appears to be the best opportunity to to help a billion young people prepare for their future.

Synthesis. There is an underlying premise to this blog, you could almost call it a theory of change, that suggests a synthesis of EdReform aims and the opportunity of innovation:

  1. Excellence and equity in education is the most important issue for the American economy and society; even more so for developing economies.

  2. Expanding access to high quality learning experiences requires innovation particularly new learning tools and formats.

  3. Learning online holds great promise for improved productivity and expanded access; new school formats that blend online learning and onsite support and application have the potential to prepare more kids for the idea economy.

  4. Blended learning environments leverage great teachers and improve working conditions and career options.

  5. Producing and scaling innovation requires focused investment suggesting an important and complementary role for the private sector; most important advances will be the result of public-private partnerships.

  6. Expanding opportunities for education entrepreneurs and the ability to approach old problems in new ways requires more sophisticated advocacy, particularly the use of new media to amplify impact.

Back to the blog comment, I don't like week long standardized tests either but I appreciate the reason that we have them, we are much more aware of the inequities in our public delivery system than we were 20 years ago. We'll soon invent ways to combine formative assessment that will replace the need for week long end of year tests. Our public systems will soon adopt broader measures of success and innovative educators will develop student-centered learning environments and progressions. We'll innovate our way out of the EdReform quagmire but as we ditch the bargains of the last decade (like NCLB) I hope we retain the commitment to equity.

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