After more than ten years of national education policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the words accountability and assessment have become synonymous at many public schools with high-stakes testing. The two government programs have attached consequences and rewards to standardized test scores, leading many educators to believe they have to teach to the test. But, as the well-known argument goes, teaching prescribed math and reading content doesn't help students build the skills like creativity, problem-solving and adaptability they need to adapt in the world outside of school.
Many educators are hoping that as Common Core State Standards roll out across the country, teaching and assessment can focus more on problem-solving and the process of getting to an answer, rather than a focus on the answer itself. But, even those process-oriented skills will be assessed with a standardized test – either the Smarter Balanced Assessment or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
The Smarter Balanced Consortium conducted a pilot of their test earlier this year to help participating schools get a sense of what the tests would be like, as well as to evaluate logistical challenges in administering the computer-based test. An Education Week article explains:
The biggest idea that the pilots underscored for many educators was that the key for getting ready for the tests is not just getting the technology ready, but also having students and teachers know the standards.
"I think we have to make sure we are teaching and assessing with intent on the common core," Henson [a Michigan superintendent of instruction] says. "It is really skills-based. Reading, writing, and listening skills are a huge part of being able to take that test."
The article indicates that teachers will still be teaching to the test -- they’re just hoping the test will measure how a learner thinks, not just what they've memorized. That’s the big question, and early studies suggest they will.
One report [PDF] conducted by The National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing, or CRESST, at the University of California, Los Angeles indicates that the new tests “are likely to represent important goals for deeper learning, particularly those related to mastering and being able to apply core academic content and cognitive strategies related to complex thinking, communication, and problem solving.”
[RELATED READING: Will the New Online Standardized Tests Be Different?]
But other education researchers wonder if high-stakes testing in any form can truly measure the skills that not only deepen learning, but turn a student into a life-long learner.
“People often try to figure out what makes a difference in education and they try to find different variables that might explain that difference,” said Brent Duckor, a professor at San Jose State University focusing on assessment. “It’s been harder for people to measure, and put the resources around measuring, the so-called soft skills -- let’s call them resiliency, persistence, a sense of caring and engagement with school -- and to use those in conjunction with the more typical academic achievement measures.” The benefits of the harder-to-quantify skills aren't easily disentangled from academic achievement scores, making it hard to prove through tests that alternative teaching and learning styles can achieve measurable outcomes.
This tension arises clearly with one of the hottest topics in education right now – project-based learning. Many educators hope this method of teaching content through inquiry and exploration will implicitly deepen learning and shift it towards the goals outlined in Common Core.
“If we are going to measure something, it’s going to take time and it’s going to take resources and effort,” said Duckor. “And what we've seen is a lot less attention on measuring those skills in any rigorous or reliable way.” It would take much more time and money to really develop assessments that measure creativity or resilience, but states have neither the time, money nor political will to do so, Duckor said.
“To the extent that policymakers can go back to the drawing board and say, 'How could Smarter Balanced find ways to investigate the validity and the reliability of teacher claims,' we could say there would be an advance,” Duckor said. He’d like to see more alternative methods of assessment used.
School-based accountability, where student achievement and progression is determined by teachers, not a state test, is one such method that’s already been studied by researchers. New York City’s Central Park East Secondary School, a progressive poster child in the 1990s, provides an example of how school-based accountability works.
[RELATED READING: How Do You Measure Learning?]
Central Park East developed systems to assess student work that meet the criteria for authentic assessment that well-known researchers like Stanford’s Linda Darling Hammond have determined to be successful. In a soon-to-be-published article, Duckor and co-author Daniel Perlstein argue that the school evaluated projects by asking students to demonstrate knowledge, understand various perspectives on it, connect it to other learning, make conclusions based on varying sets of conditions and be able to discuss its relevance. Most of these elements were included in subject-based portfolios that students created and had to defend in front of a committee that included teachers, students and outside adults.
But Central Park East’s modelcouldn't hold up to the strong pressures for standardized testing. “The pressures to develop easily measured and easily routinized forms of assessment, and easily measured and easily routinized forms of teaching and learning, in turn, made the school increasingly less successful and less central to reform,” said Daniel Perlstein, professor of education history at the University of California, Berkeley. There has always been a reform movement pushing for more democratic and socially oriented education in the U.S., but historically those efforts haven’t faired well on tests.
“The American educational system was as successful in the absence of high-stakes standardized, centralized forms of assessments, as it is now, perhaps more successful,” said Perlstein. “There are various forms of accountability and the notion that we have to make accountability an easily measurable test item is one notion of accountability, but by no means the most useful for kids, for teachers or for the society as a whole.”
Perlstein points to other measures of a school’s success. Are parents satisfied with the education their children are receiving? Are students engaged and excited to come to school? Those are measures of accountability that don’t carry much weight when it comes to funding, teachers salaries or national rankings, but might be the most important for encouraging life-long learners.
Moving away from tests as the only means to measure knowledge, both at the school level and on state tests, frees teachers up to teach in more dynamic ways. “It’s a question of whose accountability and for whose good,” said Duckor. “And what infrastructure do we have to support communities that would like to have school-based accountability, but at this point are being measured by somebody else’s yardstick?”
For Perlstein, it comes down to the basic fact that teachers, students and schools have a deep capacity for engaging, thoughtful work, but aren't often given the credit for their efforts. “In schools across the country teachers are trying to figure out how to do their job better,” said Perlstein. “The systems of accountability we have, rather than helping them do that, typically get in the way of that.”