Published Online: January 9, 2008

In Einstein’s Lap

Recently, I had an opportunity to sit in an exquisite, historic building in our nation’s capitol and watch brilliant education policy lions argue about a timely and critical issue: measuring student learning. The event, sponsored by National Academy of Sciences “Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability,” was billed as a workshop on multiple measures of student achievement.

The day began with a truly impressive speech by committee chair Michael Hout (UC Berkeley), who spoke on the celebrated intellectual transparency of the National Academy (“Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering and Medicine”) and offered heady remarks on bringing together experts, the finest minds, in an honest search for Truth. Hout also encouraged us to visit the sculpture of Einstein on the NAS grounds—and to sit in Einstein’s lap, if we chose. I sat back and waited to be blinded by science.

First, though, we were blinded by politics; specifically, a panel discussion on the implications of placing revised assessment models into No Child Left Behind. This seemed to be what most of the crowd was there for—a panel that included education staffers for high-profile legislators and an assistant secretary from the USDOE. There was lots of carefully parsed political language about diluting accountability and confidence in outcomes and doing right by underserved children. Lots of people lined up at the microphones to make statements on behalf of their organizations, getting their names into the record, or attempting to ask the “gotcha” question about changing NCLB. Not surprising, I guess. But hardly a deep, reflective conversation on the link between assessment data and the real lives and fortunes of kids.

My observations:

• The Committee has no clear definition of “multiple measures.” An assessment expert told us that retaking a state assessment was not a multiple measure, but the next two speakers said do-overs were important in defining student growth. Were we talking about multiple modes of assessment? More than one kind of standardized test? Criterion-referenced or norm-referenced? Home-grown or churned out by the testing industry? No consensus. As for what to do when we get divergent results on multiple measures, nobody said much at all.

• In a State Perspectives segment, we heard from the Nebraska Department of Education (a state which actually built its assessment system on multiple, locally created measures). The Nebraskans offered a presentation on the advantages and challenges of matching local learning goals and assessments to student needs. Nebraska has taken the stance that assessment should be an ongoing, non-threatening part of a student’s daily experience with schoolwork. The Nebraska STARS program has improved the assessment literacy and skills of Nebraska teachers—certainly a good thing—and promoted systemic engagement in deciding what matters in student learning. The audience was underwhelmed. Some of the policy wonks lapsed into rudeness, carrying on whispered conversations and rolling their eyes at the presentation.

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• People at the workshop seemed to think in the Grand Plural—of great causes, and not individual kids, classrooms or schools. William Taylor (Chair, Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights) railed against the Nebraska initiative, calling it a “throwback to times before Brown”—when assessing kids on what educators believed they needed to know meant lower standards and expectations. Musing on my friend Renee Moore’s meticulous thinking around setting goals and measuring important learning for her particular students in the Mississippi Delta, it was hard for me to understand how and why standardized tests had somehow become a civil rights objective.

• In the last part of the program, when two-thirds of the audience had gone home and most of the rest had drifted to the back of the room to commune with their Blackberries, Drew Gitomar (Educational Testing Service) said one of the smartest things I heard all day. He noted that federally mandated education accountability systems were psychometrically weak, and predicated on mistrust between the actors and the system. We spend too much time, he said, on outcomes, and not enough time on process, or collective human judgment. He was shaking his head when he acknowledged that we had no idea what it meant, really, to be “proficient.” In the absence of wisdom, we rely on single-number or composite-number metrics. But the workshop was drawing to a close, and people had calls to make, meetings to attend, cabs to catch.

I stopped in the Academy’s holly and elm grove to say goodbye to Einstein, who famously declared that imagination was more important than knowledge. I wondered what he would think about standardized tests and snapshot evaluations of human achievement.

“The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.” –Einstein

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