Society and Culture, Education

Education reform and Common Core: Should we pause high-stakes accountability?

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Over on his Ed Week Blog, my colleague Rick Hess has a thoughtful post on a question gripping education policy circles right now: with the advent of new Common Core standards and Common Core-aligned tests, should we pause high stakes accountability systems until instruction is aligned to them and the tests themselves are ready for prime time?

Before I dive too far into this debate, I think it might be helpful to start with a bit of history.

Those with a long enough memory remember that when Arne Duncan announced the federal grants to develop assessments aligned to the Common Core, he promised that they would do everything under the sun. He referred to the Common Core-aligned exams as “An absolute game-changer in public education” saying that they would be “Tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom” and would “Better measure the higher-order thinking skills so vital to success in the global economy of the 21st century.”

He said that the tests would “Help drive the development of a rich curriculum, instruction that is tailored to student needs, and multiple opportunities throughout the school year to assess student learning,” and that the tests would “Assess students by asking them to design products or experiments, to manipulate parameters, run tests, and record data.”

I mean, how can you argue with that?

The problem is that the rubber is meeting the road, and the assessments are looking more like the previous generation of tests than Duncan’s “game-changers.”  Now, that is not a knock against the tests. As Deven Carlson pointed out during AEI’s recent conference on the Common Core, developing quality test items is really hard work. It is time consuming and it is expensive.  I don’t doubt that these new tests represent a serious improvement on the status quo.

But, given that these tests might not be the silver bullet that some thought they would be, and that there are serious practical and political concerns as we move to them, there are real implications for using these exams to make decisions on hiring and firing teachers and imposing sanctions on schools that fail to meet performance targets.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Rick on any of his claims.  I think that there are still serious issues that need to be worked out that run the risk of causing new assessments to do more harm than good, but I do want to put a bit of a wrinkle on his argument.  I wonder if by supporting a moratorium, one cedes ground to a group that ultimately does not want to be held accountable, but can hide behind claims of “fairness” and “credibility.”

At our conference, NEA Vice-President Lily Eskelsen said that, “We should never use these tests for high stakes decisions for principals, for teachers, for schools, or for students unless and until we have validated these as indicators of a teacher’s performance or a school’s performance.”

I totally agree with that statement, in the way that I interpret it.

However, I would bet that Lily and I don’t see eye to eye on exactly what that means.  For her, how high is that bar?  Can tests ever clear it?

In short, will folks who are skeptical of standardized testing ever feel that they are accurate indicators?  If they won’t, is courting their support a fool’s errand that runs the risk of running any accountability policy with teeth off the rails?  Is backlash unavoidable?

At the end of the day, like Rick, I find myself totally unsatisfied by either answer to this question.  I don’t want to see teachers judged for judging’s sake, but I also want to recognize that any measure is imperfect, and we have to do the best we can with the tools that we have available.

Can someone come up with a better answer? Is there a third way?

Feel free to let me know in the comments, or over on twitter (I’m @mq_mcshane). And be on the lookout, starting Monday, June 3rd I’m uncorking a 10-part (yes 10-part) blog series on Common Core implementation issues.  Flies, prepare to meet some ointment.

5 thoughts on “Education reform and Common Core: Should we pause high-stakes accountability?

  1. The U.S. “model” of public education is flawed. It has evolved over the last century to serve educators and not students. This was largely the result of unionizing teachers. The current model is essentially a lesson plan driven system that checks boxes until all the boxes are checked. The tests rather then being an evaluation of student knowledge or even as a learning tool is instead reduced to being taught to insure that the educator looks good. Each day/class period consists of assigning the student a reading/study task to be completed tomorrow and then reviewing the reading/study assignment that was assigned yesterday. Teaching rarely takes place. If the student choose not to complete the assignment there is rarely any identification of this fact and even more rarely any remedial study required. It is essentially allowing each student to educate themselves if they so choose OR merely use the school as a social club to hang out with their friends. Those students who do succeed in this flawed model do so primarily because their parents take up the slack in the system and become the educators and make sure their children complete assignments and learn the intended lesson.

    A better model would be something closer to the Old (not the current) English boarding schools. In this model the subject was taught in the classroom, discipline was strictly controlled and the classes were single gender to prevent disruptions. Assignments for supplemental reading/study was the norm BUT so was the followupp the next day to insure that each student did the assignments. And when assignments were not completed satisfactorily (important point; not just completed but completed satisfactorily) there was a follow-up by the teacher to get the student to do the work or face punishments up to and including being expelled. The teacher was required to teach and to insure self study took place. This model also allowed and in fact lent itself to greater learning since the class time and individual study time was maximized and controlled. Students learned more and advanced into higher level studies in earlier grades and graduated from high school with the equivalent of knowledge we now expect from a four year college.

    If we continue with the inferior model for education we will continue to get inferior results.

  2. God forbid they ever teach the three Rs, test students on academic ability and hold teachers accountable for the results.

  3. I’d like to see the high stakes be applied to the adults for the next five years, rather than the students. Teachers need to take time to align their curriculum, and schools and districts need to take time to provide classrooms with the resources and support they need to undertake such a dramatic shift in practice. The tests can be rolled out, and the scores shared with educators at all levels of the system, from teachers, to the Federal Government. Over a period of 3-5 years, students scores would be expected to significantly improve, but students wouldn’t be harmed while the adults are still figuring out how to make this massive change. By 2018 or 2019, high stakes for students could kick in at the middle school level, beginning with students who had grown up with the new tests.

  4. I am a classroom teacher and support accountability. However, let’s be fair and recognize that high stakes tests are not designed to measure teacher effectiveness. High stakes tests do not provide feedback to teachers so they can improve their craft. They are designed to be efficient measures of student mastery of specific material, but not an all-encompassing measure of what a student or school can do. These tests also do not correctly measure the abilities of special needs students.
    An ideal assessment of student learning would be a portfolio that demonstrations the year’s worth of growth by a student. Portfolios, however, take a lot of time to develop and interpret and can’t easily be graphed or compared classroom to classroom, much less state to state.

  5. The big difference between the things you are mentioning, at least to my eye, is this. High stakes testing might give you data about how a system is performing, but it doesn’t give the classroom teacher much information. It really doesn’t help students know where they stand. And I think parents are lost in knowing how to respond. I don’t get why we would want to invest millions/billions in a system that fails to help teachers, students and parents. I’d argue that assessments must first prove their value to those consistencies before we invest in them….because if they fail teachers and students and parents, what value do they have?

    Instead, I believe, the much more impactful kind of test is one that structures higher-level thinking. Take an end of the year test for example, one teacher gives a 100 question multiple choice question over important vocabulary words, identifying the names of literary structures, etc etc etc. The other teacher gives a different kind of test…one where students have to read 6 articles that have different perspectives on an issue and they must formulate and write a persuasive multiple paragraph essay, including in-text citations. Both are given in the same amount of time.

    You would get very different kinds of information from each teacher’s assessment. I would argue that you would have a much better sense of a student’s ability to read, think, synthesize, analyze and write with the 2nd assessment while the 1st assessment will give you a much better understanding of a student’s familiarity with concepts, important vocabulary and important literacy devices and authors.

    It’s not an either or situation to me. Both are valid ways to measure end of the year progress….and both give very different kinds of information. And I’m betting that both would give you much better information for a classroom teacher could use than a statewide standardized test.

    As a teacher I’d much rather have either teacher-designed assessment. It would give invaluable evidence to students, parents, the community and the teacher about what a student can do now…..imagine contrasting this end of the year writing to a piece of writing that had been collected from the beginning of the year.

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