by Alberto Carvalho
It is not lost to anyone these days that when it comes to educational accountability and more specifically, assessment, public opinion is being influenced by a number of factors and entities that, in some cases, merit consideration, understanding, and acceptance, and, in others, outright rejection.
First, we need to recognize that assessment, as a legitimate tool of accountability, exists only to inform and improve the teaching and learning process. Its use beyond that most legitimate purpose lends itself to misinterpretation of results, erroneous conclusions, perversion of the system itself, and potential harm to students, teachers, schools, and communities. These potentially unintended consequences are accentuated further when the accountability system itself is not inclusive of factors that intuitively and scientifically influence student and teacher performance.
Florida is currently one of many states facing educational reform debates, seen by some as driven too far by policy and ideology more imbedded in influential think-tank pronouncements than in common sense and peer-reviewed, research-based findings. Like a pendulum swung too far, the bounce back from that intentional push is now being felt with equal vigor and repercussion. In question here is nothing less than the validity, reliability, and even viability of the state’s accountability system.
The litany of changes in just a few years with irresponsible and uninformed implementation, devoid of consideration for the multi-stacked impact of so many simultaneous modifications, has left the public confused about the true performance of students. Meanwhile, educators at all levels are concerned, doubtful, and skeptical about both policy and its rollout timeline. The recent disconnect between reports of sinking school-grade performance, alongside improved student outcomes, has only added to the confusion and the heartbreak; particularly as it is the result of a simplistic view of student achievement amidst implementation of new standards, scale and cut scores, and end-of-course exams, all either introduced or deliberately modified with predictable consequences.
Some, in an expected defensive position, will say this is a necessary evolution for the sake of educational and economic competitiveness. Others will even suggest the push back is driven by special interest, or fear of change. To that, I submit that what is in question is not the need for better and more complex standards, or assessments better aligned with the needs and demands of the new economic reality. The debate is not reform, but the form and vehicle of this reform, and even the agents behind it. If there ever was a case of the “ends justifying the means,” or better, “by all means necessary,” one would find it through an honest observation of the educational policy, standards implementation, and assessment decisions made in Florida over the past few years. Simply put, the “What” has trumped the “How” with dramatic and unfortunately, avoidable consequences.
So, on the eve of the most dramatic shift since the inception of the FCAT or the transition to FCAT 2.0 in terms of standards and assessment, we ought to pause. We need to take time to honestly reassess previous and recent decisions and their consequences and have the courage to proceed on a path that is student- and teacher-centric. A path that can and must be a both and not an either-or proposition, unlike what the for-hire pundits say. A path that excludes politics, influence, ignorance, and extremism.
How shall we proceed then? Abandon accountability and assessment altogether?