CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
You Want a New Model of Accountability? It’s Time to Organize!
The verdict is in. While ESSA required states to add in a couple of additional outcome measures of students and schools, the overwhelming weight of accountability is still upon a single standardized test by which to make important and often high-stakes judgments about students, schools, and districts. Yet, standardization and high stakes testing has not produced the results that it purportedly aimed to attain. Today, gaps in achievement by race, income, language, and disability, as measured by standardized tests, are still wide and unacceptable. At the same time, our public school enrollment has gotten increasingly more diverse.
There are greater percentages of low-income, Latino, and English Language Learner students than in generations past; these students are the very ones who have been historically underserved in the current education system. In addition, in many districts that enroll high percentages of historically underserved students, standardized testing has led to teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum that has sapped the curiosity out of students.
As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet, with the continued preeminence of standardized testing, that is largely what we are seeing from state departments of education across the country as ESSA takes hold. Why? Large bureaucracies tend to embrace maintaining the status quo; these institutions tend to be risk-averse, relying on incremental change that is merely a variation of existing approaches.
All to say, it is unrealistic to bet on state education agencies as the engine to drive radically new models of assessment and accountability, except in those very few circumstances, such as in New Hampshire with the Performance Assessment for Competency Education initiative, when the right conditions, policies, and leaders are in place to leverage fundamentally new models of assessment. What, then, can teachers, school leaders, and superintendents eager to have new models of accountability do in the face of slow-moving state departments of education?
The answer lies in the lessons of other social movements throughout history. As Margaret Mead noted, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Her quip is a good reminder; people organizing for ideas they believe in brings about change; rarely do institutions. Another way to think about it is, if they won’t build it, we will.
Such is the case with the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA), a grasstops consortium of six districts, five urban and one suburban, assisted by the Center for Collaborative Education and College of the Holy Cross. Importantly, the consortium’s governing board consists of the superintendents and teacher union presidents of member districts, signaling the prominent role that teachers should play in new accountability models. The consortium is developing a new accountability model that offers a more dynamic picture of student learning and school quality and provides more meaningful and actionable information to teachers than can a model that relies largely upon a standardized test.
Focus groups in each community of students, parents, educators, and community members, along with polling data and research evidence, led to the creation of a School Quality Measures Framework and subsequent online dashboard of the data that the community most wants to know about their schools. The dashboard has five categories, each with multiple indicators – Resources, School Culture, Character and Wellness, Teachers and the Teaching Environment, and Academic Learning. Teams of teachers in consortium schools are learning how to create high quality, curriculum-embedded performance tasks in which students demonstrate what they know and are able to do in ways they will be expected to perform in life, and to reliably score the resulting student work. These tasks will become the primary means of assessing student learning. Once fully built, the consortium seeks to request of the state department of education to apply for a federal waiver to enable the consortium to adopt the MCIEA model and be exempt from state testing except in “dipstick” grades.
The field is more than ready for a change; in fact, the frustration over public education being driven by standardized tests is palpable. In November 2017 at the annual conference of MA superintendents and school committees, a consortium superintendent, school committee member, and CCE and CHC members presented the MCIEA model to a room of close to 90 participants. When panelists noted that MCIEA would eventually seek a federal waiver to be exempt from state testing, a majority of the room burst into applause.
Educators, parents, students, and community members are eager to create a new education landscape in which the primary focus is on creating engaged, collaborative learners, readers, writers, problem solvers, and creators. This vision will not be realized as long as standardized testing is a predominant high-stakes means to assess students, schools, and districts. To attain this vision, we will need grasstops and grassroots movements to push for state-level radical reform.