It’s that time of year again. State standardized testing season is upon us. Across the Commonwealth students in grades 3 and up will have the opportunity to prove what they have learned over the course of this year through their performance on a standardized state assessment. At least, theoretically, that it is what these tests are supposed to measure. The results from these tests will then be used to hold teachers, schools, and districts accountable, ranking our schools across the state from lowest to highest based almost exclusively on the performance of their students on these exams. In order to maximize performance, schools often try not to schedule more than one session per day as student performance declines in subsequent sessions due to fatigue. Furthermore, due to staffing, resource constraints, and students needing accommodations, different grade levels are tested at different times and on different days. Consequently, with multiple sessions in each content area across many days, the disruption to the learning environment and lost instructional time has a substantial impact in our schools.
Advocates of this approach assert that such an accountability systems is essential, for otherwise how are we to know how our schools are performing. Without such a system how can we compare one school and district to another? Without such a system how can we identify weak schools or teachers? These arguments are easily understandable and seem logical when taken at face value. However, educators know that these arguments are buttressed by false logic inherent in their formation and based upon the presumption that these tests, taken in isolation, are a true and accurate measure of school and teacher performance as well as individual student achievement. In reality the steps necessary to gain a true picture of a district and school’s performance are much more complex and comprised of a rich tapestry of indicators. The difficulty is that the complexity of that process is difficult to boil down to a number or data point.
Complex policy discussions are difficult today because the media forces us to argue in soundbites. Additionally, the emergency atmosphere currently surrounding education leads to a situation where immediate results are seen as necessary to reform what is continually portrayed as a failing system. This creates an environment where actions taken are transactional instead of transformational. Transformation of a system takes time and patience. It involves false starts, failures and trips down blind alleys. However, in the end, such time spent would result in a transformed system that is reshaped in the image of our modern society and culture. Today in education, everybody is talking about innovation, but few are doing anything truly innovative. Our current system is designed to drive us toward standardized delivery of education services which inhibits necessary innovation and mires us in mediocrity. Pockets of excellence do emerge, but it is difficult as we struggle upstream against the deluge of polices flooding our overburdened system. Educators realize this, but are held hostage to our test scores as these are the primary metric by which the state judges our performance.
This year in Massachusetts the situation has reached a level that is truly unbelievable. Students across the state will be taking multiple forms of state assessments. Students in some districts will continue taking the traditional paper based MCAS exam. Other students will be taking the paper based PARCC exam and still others will be taking the PARCC exam on computers. Further complicating the picture is the fact that some districts whose students took the PARCC exam on computer last year have now switched back to have them take it on paper instead. Why you might ask? The answer is that student performance across the state demonstrated that students did better when taking the exam on paper as opposed to computer. Given the high stakes nature of the results of these exams for districts one can’t fault systems for trying to give themselves a competitive advantage by gaming the system. However, what do such strategies have to do with an accurate measurement of student achievement?
The state will point out that schools that have chosen to have their students take PARCC will be “held harmless” if their scores decline. The problem is that schools will only be held harmless for students’ achievement scores and not participation rates. Across the state parents, concerned about the impact that the chaotic approach to standardized testing outlined above is having upon the educational environment in our schools, are expressing their dissatisfaction in the only way left to them: by opting their children out of standardized state assessments. No one is listening to their concerns, so they are left with no alternative course of action.. Now, administrators are anxious as this will create a situation which negatively impacts schools and districts as they decline in “levels” when their participation rates fall. Furthermore, the state refuses to set up a process to even track the number of students who are opted out. One can only assume that they don’t want to have the ability to accurately report how many students were opted out as they feel that this might encourage the movement.
There has to be a better way. It is time to infuse some rationality into this discussion. It is time to put these state accountability provisions on hold while we work on the next generation MCAS exam that is currently under development. The problem is that the development of that exam is being rushed because of an extremely aggressive timeline scheduled to have that exam ready for next year. I do not fault the efforts of those working on that project, but rarely does a rushed development process lead to a solid end product. We need to stop worrying about merely getting this new exam done and worry rather about getting it right. We need to work together to determine what is the most focused and concise exam possible to minimize the disruption to instructional time in our schools, yet still garner the information we need to assess performance. We need to ask the question if something else such as performance based assessment measures could help provide a more complete picture of student performance. We need to work to develop a set of additional school performance indicators to obtain an accurate and comprehensive picture of school and district performance so that we are not relying on test scores alone. We need to take the time to do the hard work of creating a comprehensive system that gives us an accurate picture of our schools rather than quickly coble together one which merely replicates the problems of the past. This is an opportunity for us to get this right; to learn from the past 20 years and develop a system that will transform public education for the 21st century.