How new schools, tools and policies will bring an end to the big test

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Note: This is the second installment in our guest series on testing and educational choice. See the first contribution here.

by Tom Vander Ark

President Obama joined the too-much-testing bandwagon recently with a late and vapid announcement. He can read opinion polls and probably sees the end of standards-based reform, but he — and other people that care about equity — may be wondering: What’s next?

testing and choiceIt’s clear that measurement has improved student learning and educational options for low income families. It’s also clear that American schools spend a lot of time measuring.

Let’s briefly recall how we got here.

  • Federal commitment to equity. The 2002 reauthorization of federal education policy often referred to as No Child Left Behind incorporated a school accountability framework and requiring testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  To predict and improve performance on these tests, districts and schools added their own assessments.
  • Cheap and reliable. Since the introduction of norm-referenced intelligence tests, the US has held an idiosyncratic fixation on affordability and reliability (rather than validity) when it comes to testing. That means long tests, multiple choice questions, testing windows, and security provisions.
  • Development of aligned systems. After standards were introduced in every state, most urban districts tried to get kids out of lower academic achievement levels by creating managed instruction systems including lesson plans, pacing guides, benchmark assessments, and professional development. Start the year with a district diagnostic test and end with a state summative test, add some school adopted tests in between, and that’s a lot of testing.

Why test? Assessment plays five important roles in school systems:

  1. Inform learning: continuous data feed that informs students, teachers, and parents about the learning process.
  2. Manage matriculation: certify that students have learned enough to move on and ultimately graduate.
  3. Evaluate educators: inform the practice and development of educators.
  4. Check quality: measure program and school quality particularly what students know and can do and how fast they are progressing.
  5. Inform stakeholders: parents use assessment results to monitor learner progress and pick neighborhoods when they move. Policymakers test scores to inform public policy discussions.

For the last 20 years, heavyweight end of year state tests were used for all five purposes — they were cheap and comparable, but poorly suited for all that we ask of them.

The new PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests that are much better assessments of writing and thinking skills, but were designed for the old system and remain focused on determining grade level proficiency. Because they include a lot of writing and problem solving, they take a lot longer than most old tests — and few of us predicted the backlash to harder longer tests.

What’s next? There have been eight important developments since NCLB was enacted in 2002:

  1. Student internet access has improved sufficiently to support an expectation of frequent online learning and assessment.
  2. Performance assessment tools make it easier to construct, manage, and assess projects and standards-aligned prompts (see LDC CoreTools, and Buck Institute).
  3. Embedded assessments are incorporated into many forms of digital content.
  4. Formative assessment systems have improved dramatically. Platforms like MasteryConnect, Acuity, Edmodo, OpenEd, and Schoology make it easy to build, administer, and share standards-aligned assessments.
  5. Adaptive assessment, such as MAPS from NWEA, is widely used. Adaptive learning, which combines adaptive assessment and targeted tutoring, is gaining widespread use in blended learning models. Providers include DreamBox (K-8 math) i-Ready from Curriculum Associates (k-8 math and reading), ALEKS from McGraw Hill (mostly secondary use).
  6. Broader aims of student success, including self management and relational skills, are widely recognized as important and are being incorporated into state and district goals. The hard-to measure skills and dispositions require broader feedback systems than traditional standardized testing.
  7. Competency-based school models, perhaps the most important sign of things to come, feature student progress based on demonstrated mastery. A series of small assessment gateways are used to manage student progress (see The Shift from Cohorts to Competency).
  8. Micro-credentialing for educators (see Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning) is another future trend. As educator preparation and development moves to competency-based systems, it will result in less reliance on summative assessments.

All of these developments lay the groundwork for apparent paradox of fewer tests but much better information. Five things need to happen before states shrink or give up on end of year summative tests:

  1. States should adopt competency-based graduation requirements and supporting policies (like Maine, N.H., Colo., Ariz.). This will shift the focus from courses and credits to knowledge, skills and dispositions. The Great Schools Partnership supported policy shifts in New England states and facilitated adoption of competency-based diplomas at regional universities.
  2. States should encourage districts and networks to develop common assessment systems (see Assessment for Learning). Some states created innovation zones (Kentucky, Wisconsin, Connecticut) or pilot projects (Oregon, Iowa, Ohio, Idaho). A few New Hampshire districts are piloting performance-based assessment and getting a break from some state testing.
  3. Districts and networks (and the EdTech sector) need to figure out how to combine all of the formative information that comes with the shift to digital learning. In particular we need to be able to compare proficiency levels and growth rates of students in different assessment rich environments.
  4. States should adopt a micro-credentialing system for educator preparation and development.
  5. States should adopt data backpacks — expanded electronic transcripts — that move with students

None of those are simple changes, but the direction of more and better data embedded into learning experiences is inevitable. Good schools already know how every student is doing in every subject every day making archaic the notion of taking a week off near the end of the year to determine proficiency.

Rather than relying on the big, inexpensive end-of-year test for all assessment needs, the five developments mentioned above will offload jobs to new assessments. Student progress is monitored and managed by a series of small gateway assessments that also also comparison from school to school. Portable electronic transcripts and portfolios will allow teachers to personalize learning from day one. Teacher growth will be demonstrated by a series of micro-credentials. Once all of these systems are in place there may still be the need for a check on system quality, but NAEP tests (given to a representative sample) may be enough to serve that purpose.

The good news is that the end of the big test is in sight. However, it will take a few years of R&D to build the tools and schools we need before we can ditch the big test.

This post mentions Getting Smart partners DreamBox and Curriculum Associates. The full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures is available here.

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