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

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Duncan Announces Plan for Year-Round Testing

The flood of easy money to advance the corporate education "reform" agenda shows no signs of drying up, with $330,000,000 now being paid out to two consortia to develop national tests to go with the national curriculum that no federal legislator has had any voice in choosing or approving.  Quite a stunning display of federal policy making without either of the legislative branches involved. 

Here is Monty Neill's assessment of the plan:
Monty Neill
Deputy Director, FairTest
The proposals from SBAC and PARCC are far more similar than different. That is in large part because of the overly constraining requirements imposed by the Department. The Consortia are both likely to produce improved standardized tests, which will not be hard to do. The underlying question, however, is whether after 4-plus years and hundreds of millions of dollars, the nation will end up with the assessments it and its children deserve and need. After reading the two lengthy submissions, my conclusion is, no.
First, continued misuse of high stakes will continue to distort the system. While Duncan’s rhetoric is on helping students learn and on tests that (finally) assess higher order skills, the system remains trapped in its punitive use of tests to evaluate students, schools and now teachers, with resulting narrowing and dumbing-down of curriculum and instruction to beat the test. The accountability structure must change. I agree with Diane: the nation should halt the use high-stakes uses of tests as sole or major stand-alone hurdles for teacher evaluation (being pushed hard by Duncan), school evaluation (per NCLB), and in many states for high school graduation or grade promotion.
Second, the Consortia focus on a limited number of statewide tests, to include one (PARRC) or a few (SBAC) performance tasks, some administered during the year. That is an inadequate number of performance tasks to make a real difference in the ways assessment dominates teaching. It is an insufficient approach to multiple measures. It also is not a system, it is still just a few tests. Both, especially SBAC, talk about ‘formative’ assessments, but true formative assessment – assessment for learning – is teacher controlled, not externally controlled, and tied to specific curriculum and specific students, not generic. While SBAC may create some good tasks for teachers to use, and their support for assembling libraries of high-quality tasks is a good idea, they are not proposing to ensure the development of true classroom and local assessments on which a healthy system would have to rest. Overall, despite some potential improvements in the instruments, the Consortia provide a conceptually and practically inadequate approach to assessment.
Third, the Consortia place enormous reliance on computer and internet technology, SBAC more so than PARCC. The technology is not likely to be ready for prime time by 2014. The Wyoming computer-adaptive testing system totally collapsed this year (as had Oregon’s previously) and a trial of new computer tests in Florida also resulted in many problems. That’s with far less complex technology requirements than the consortia propose.
Fourth, there is likely to be a great expansion of commercial ancillary testing. Teachers will continue to have to assess far more than the few consortia tests. As is now happening, this perceived gap will be filled by a vast flood of new tests, mostly paraded as ‘formative’ and ‘interim,’ many if not most of poor quality, marketed to schools and districts desperate not to fail on the new tests. They will be imposed on teachers, either increasing the amount of testing or replacing classroom-rooted teacher tests (now of uneven quality) with commercial junk. These various shortcuts may or may not boost scores, but they will further corrupt teaching and learning.
Fifth, control over teaching and thus learning is increasingly centralized. Who will control the multi-state consortia in the future is quite uncertain (as Checker has often pointed out). Mistakes will be harder to fix, while people’s sense of any ability to influence education will further diminish, and with it meaningful democracy. In addition, central offices are likely to use commercial mini-tests to more intensely micro-manage teachers, a tendency already growing in some cities, and further de-professionalize teaching.
These last two are, it will be argued, not the fault of the Consortia or the Department. However, the Department has set in motion the development of a system of expanded and intensified testing. The dangers are obvious – but are in no way structurally addressed by the Department or the Consortia. Indeed, the dangers would appear to be ‘benefits’ to the Department.
The federal government could have taken a very different approach to improving assessment, as I outlined in a June Education Week commentary (available at http://www.fairtest.org/better-way-assess-students-and-evaluate-schools). It could have emphasized gathering and evaluating evidence of learning out of actual student work; low-stakes of using a very limited amount of standardized tests; and a school quality review process. The feds could foster such a system and help fund the extensive professional development on which it would have to rest. But, not surprisingly, the Obama-Duncan administration has proposed changes that don’t change enough from the destructive approaches of NCLB and that present all-too-predicable major problems.

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