Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Testing, Testing, 123

As you all may have seen, Arne Duncan, as Secretary of Education, has affirmed the role and importance of high stakes testing HERE And depending on your state, you may already have been through a round of PARCC or Smarter Balanced testing, or may be preparing for your first leap into the deep waters this spring semester. Speaking as a loud and longtime advocate for the Common Core State Standards, I think we all now need to look deeply and carefully at the assessments. 

The CCSS are, as we all know, about skills, not content. Each state, district, school crafts its own curriculum, while weaving in the age and grade appropriate skills. The goal is to have college and career ready graduates. The assessments, then, must cut across content areas, must not be dependent upon or be measures of words, terms, dates, concepts that students have learned. Rather they are to measure that the student has learned how to learn -- has come to understand (at the level appropriate to his/her grade band) how to read carefully, how to look for evidence, how to compare and contrast sources, how to identify and evaluate point of view. Fine. But in order to be manageable across the nation, the tests -- as one can see on the websites of PARCC and SB -- are significantly machine gradable. That is, while there are constructed responses (short essays) there are also multiple choice questions. Can multiple choice questions truly capture the kind of inquiry, critical thinking, creative engagement with text that CCSS requires?

I am between deeply doubtful and deeply concerned. Or maybe this whole testing thing needs to be viewed differently: maybe looked at in aggregate, as a cross-section of the entire population of a school or district, multiple choice CCSS tests may be valuable. We can see how a given student body is faring and, over time, progressing (or regressing). But as a way to evaluate an individual, boy I'm not convinced.

I am only beginning to explore assessments, and with little prior knowledge. Friends, many of you are educators, I urge everyone to go to the PARCC and SB sites and explore. We should all look, experiment, and then speak out -- not on the ideological questions of whether students should be assessed, or whether the CCSS are a good idea, or the degree to which the evaluations of professionals in the school are tied to student performance on these tests -- on the tests themselves. As engaged educators, how do we assess the assessments, and what improvements can we suggest. 

We have moved from standards to assessments, and we as professionals need to take on this next task. 

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