"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Classroom-Based Assessment: Let the Rebuilding Begin

Part of re-democratization of America that will begin after Tuesday of next week will occur in America's classrooms. Some neglected ideas will be called upon to put public schools back into the hands of the public and to begin to rebuild those bombed-out, yet essential, bridges between teachers, administrators, parents, and children. America's most courageous and committed educators will be called upon. One of them will be Doug Christensen, Commission of Education from Nebraska.

After rejection from ED last summer for its classroom-based, and teacher/administrator directed, assessment system, Christensen led thousands of educators in making their case to ED officials to re-consider. They won.

The Commissioner has a different take on what is required to return assessment to the classroom as a tool to help teachers become more effective teachers, rather than as a tool to mete out punishment and sanctions and privatization schemes. Christensen believes that we do not need to think outside the box; to do so preserves the box as something that must be worked around. He believes, rather, that we need a different box with different boundaries and different configurations, one that can be used in many contexts without ignoring that those contexts exist.

So as a beginning point to the re-building of America's schools around an idea whose time is about to come, here is part of Christensen's recent keynote speech (Word file) at the Second Annual Conference
Leadership for Classroom Assessment: Classroom Assessment: A "Brave New World":

. . . I have found that in schools where classroom-based assessment is led by teachers in collaboration with their administrators, that cultures develop where personal and professional renewal lives and thrives. I have found in schools with classroom-based assessment to be places where passion is back and it is welcomed. I have found that classroom-based assessment creates places where the passion is back and in these schools it is okay to be passionate about our work; our profession, our kids--all of our kids. And, I have found classroom-based assessment to create places where the professional spirits of educators can thrive and places where their hearts embrace each child and every child. Aren’t these the kinds of places where all of us would like to live and do our work?

I can tell you that even though I am considerably removed from the classroom directly, this work has impacted me as well. I have never been so enthusiastic about our work. I have never been so anxious to see it fully evolve into these new places and these new futures.

Let me give you a specific example. I have never been so proud of our Nebraska educators as I was this past April. We were hosting representatives from the U.S. Department of Education to get them to understand what we do here in Nebraska with our classroom assessment model. Assistant Secretary Henry Johnson and two other staff members were in Omaha meeting with key Nebraska leaders who have helped us develop our assessment system and to meet with educator-leaders from the Elkhorn, Papillion-LaVista and Plattsmouth schools.

For an evening and most of a full day, the USDE representatives listened and asked questions during presentations led by teachers. What the U.S. Department of Education learned while they were here was not only what we were doing in our schools to measure student learning and provide for accountability but what we are doing to build assessment literacy and leadership. Even more important, they also learned about passion, commitment, and professionalism. One of the representatives related to our staff that this was a “wow experience!”

I listened to our educators talk. They were nervous for the first minute or so, but soon they got into it. It was incredible how the conversations flowed as our educators explained what our work is about. I was proud of the expertise and confidence they clearly showed. What made me most proud was their passion. When educators combine expert knowledge with confidence and passion, the sky is truly the limit. The educators knew their stuff, they were confident in what they were doing and they were proud. So was I.

As I listened to our educators present their processes and share their expertise, I confirmed in my mind a long held belief that this would never happen in a system of centralized assessment and high stakes. It is my belief that in a centralized assessment system, there is little space for classroom assessment and if the system is also high stakes there is absolutely no space for classroom assessment because it will have little if any meaning as long as the rules of the game are defined by centralization, standardization and high stakes consequences.

As I sat there and watched our educators and listened to their words, I swear I could hear their hearts and it was all I could do to keep tears from rolling. What a profound and proud moment that was. This is one of these new places and there are others.

There are more new places that are now possible for us but would never have been possible had we opted for the world of state-level testing that is defined by centralization, standardization and high stakes. Standardized high-stakes testing creates cultures that literally suck the oxygen out of the work. There is no oxygen in high stakes testing, There is no place to live and grow let alone be alive and thrive. There is no place for the hearts and souls of educators let alone the hearts and souls of the students.

The culture of high stakes testing is toxic. It not only takes the oxygen out of the work, it also makes all the wrong things important, as if they are the right things. For example, high stakes testing treats students, teachers and data as “commodities” to be manipulated as variables in some kind of strange economy or in some perverse experiment. In addition, I believe high stakes testing freezes the current system in place treating current practice as if it is good practice and practice that should be continued even though the whole point of accountability is to improve the system where a lot of current practice does not work. High stakes testing standardizes the current schooling model assuming it can work for all students, in all settings and under all conditions and we know that it does not and we know that it cannot. High stakes testing prevents the very innovation we should be encouraging.

If what I have just described is not enough perversion, consider this. High stakes testing also creates conditions where the students who will get our attention are the ones most likely to improve, not the ones with the greatest needs or the ones with the greatest gaps between them and their peers. It is simply more economical and more efficient to pay attention to the kids who are closest to being proficient. These are the kids who will make average proficiency scores go up and help schools met AYP targets. The kids who are farthest from proficiency are likely not to get the help they need because it is going to take too much time, too much effort and there will be little gain. So much for leaving no child behind.

Whether intended or not and whether informed or not, the creation of policy that has made testing an accountability tool has wittingly or unwittingly made assessment a policy tool. Assessment is an instructional tool and to rob it from the toolbox and repertoire of teachers is to tie the hands of teachers behind their backs and attempt to control the classroom remotely. In addition, when assessment becomes a policy tool, it becomes a hammer and its primary purpose is to force compliance and to establish control by controlling what, how and when the system measures what it does.

Jonathon Kozal is blunter than I am when he states: “Tests used judiciously are instruments of guidance to good teachers. But tests . . . (that) are not instruments of decent change . . . are simply clubs with which to bludgeon . . .”

In the world in which I want to spend my professional life and in the world in which I would like my grandchildren to go to school is not one where “bludgeoning” would be part of culture. And, is it any wonder that high stakes testing simply steals the joy from this profession? Is this not a perverse and toxic place?

Classroom-based assessment is a different world than the high stakes, standardized assessment world and it is a world that I welcome. I hope you welcome it as well. A world in which classroom-based assessment operates is a world with a culture in which I want to work. It is a world with a culture that I want our children to go to school.

Why is a culture created by classroom-based assessment so different? There are many reasons. First, classroom-based assessment recognizes that teaching and learning is the “core” of what “school” is all about. Second, classroom-based assessment places the classroom at the center of the school and places it at the center of the work of school. Third, classroom-based assessment recognizes that the work of school and the work in the classroom are about kids and their learning. Fourth, classroom-based assessment recognizes that the work is about all kids and there are no victories in inequality. And fifth, classroom-based assessment embraces the spirit and disposition of educators recognizing that the challenging work of being an educator where the agenda is equity must include a culture that will evoke not only their best efforts but will evoke their spirit, their will and their dispositions. . .
Christensen for next Secretary of Education? Someone who actually knows something about education? You be the decider of that. Please.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:06 PM

    Thank you for your article about literacy assessment, and the need for classroom-based assessments as opposed to centralized assessment.
    I am a literature teacher in a private two-year career college, and I am taking a master's level education course at Austin Peay State University. One of my current classes is in the used of technology to increase literacy in students.
    One reason that I chose this class is because I quite often have students in my classes who can neither read nor write at a tenth-grade level. I have often wondered what I can do to improve my skills as literacy professional.
    One part of my studies includes my gaining a greater understanding of the methods and techniques that are used by educators in the public school system, including reading assessment testing.
    As an outsider, trying to gain perspective on the world of professional literacy instructors, your article has provided me with a better understanding of the need to create a, "culture of learning...with renewed passion," within the school environment.
    As I teacher, I struggle with the concepts of effective student assessment, and the creation of a spirit of cooperation and understanding between faculty and administration that is essential exist in my college to help us produce a graduate that is literate and productive in the workforce. Your article has helped my to better understand the assessment testing methods and concerns faced by teachers in the public school system.