Education Opinion

Teachers Could Shift the Conversation About Assessment and Accountability

By Sam Chaltain — May 28, 2013 5 min read
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Guest post by Kim Farris-Berg

In Chapter 9 of the ten-part video series, A Year at Mission Hill, we are reminded that the word “assess” comes from the Latin, “to sit next to.” Then we see the assessment that Mission Hill’s teachers do, all the while sitting next to students. The word assessment has been so over-associated with standardized tests -- particularly the high-stakes ones that states require under federal law - that it’s astonishing when the seven-minute video concludes and we realize we have seen nothing requiring multiple choice responses.

It’s not that Mission Hill teachers have arranged for an exemption from state standardized tests that their students are required to take under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. They have not. But, as teachers who collectively call the shots, Mission Hill’s teachers get to decide which course of action their school will take in response to external accountability requirements.

Most teachers do not get to make that decision.

Instead, most teachers have mandates to implement the learning program that states and school districts tell them to do - a protocol prescribed from the top in an effort to ensure that even the “bad” teachers contribute to improved mean proficiency scores. Teachers in some states and districts have pacing guides that script their work (some are scripted by 15-minute intervals!), leaving little room for them to determine what kinds of curriculum and assessment would best help their students learn. Where this happens, teachers move all students along the paced curriculum plan, whether individuals are ready, not ready, or way past being ready. As former Minnesota Commissioner of Education Robert Wedl says, “Teachers are expected to accept that time is the constant and learning is the variable; not vice versa.”

Mission Hill’s teachers don’t have pacing guides. In fact, the teachers at the school have the authority to collectively make many of the decisions influencing their whole school’s success, including the learning program. The teachers at Mission Hill even get to decide whether and when to take interim district assessments that Boston Public Schools officials offer them as a means to ensure that their students are on track to do well on the state standardized tests at the end of the year. It’s also within their authority to develop and use other assessments.

In this position, Mission Hill teachers do two things most teachers don’t have the authority to do.

First, they partially determine the purpose of assessment. Mission Hill’s teachers have chosen not to make external accountability the purpose of all their activities and all their efforts to measure student progress. Instead, the purpose is to gather information that can be used to improve each student’s learning. It is possible to aggregate the data gathered for this latter purpose and use it for external accountability. It is possible to hold schools accountable for meeting learning targets appropriate for individual students. But state governments are not yet embracing this possibility. So, for the time being, Mission Hill’s teachers must facilitate assessment for both purposes: external accountability as measured by state standardized tests and individualized learning.

Second, Mission Hill teachers determine the types of assessment to use, as well as the frequency of assessment. When “assessment” is understood to mean high-stakes, standardized tests - and when assessment’s purpose is understood as a means of ensuring accountability - many teachers report that assessment happens too frequently because, from their perspective, it’s not in the service of the students. But where teachers can decide that the purpose of assessment is to individualize students’ learning, and where teachers can define the types of assessment to use, they determine that frequent assessment is a necessary part of the learning process.

Mission Hill’s teachers have elected to regularly sit beside, or to frequently and formatively assess, students in order to learn where each student is relative to individual learning targets and standards. As each student learns each content area, teachers are assessing whether to move full-speed ahead, try new interventions, or start over completely. The more teachers know about individual students as they engage in the learning process, the better teachers can adjust the learning approach to ensure that all students continue to move to their own next levels of achievement.

Mission Hill’s teachers have also elected to assess for a broader range of learning and growth than is assessed by high-stakes, standardized tests. Mission Hill’s students know reading, writing, and math are important. But they also know that teachers in their school, their peers, and members of the larger community will assess them for so much more. Mission Hill’s students in older grades are expected to have the skills necessary to manage complex projects from beginning to end and to defend their project work, in addition to their entire body of school work assembled in a portfolio, by explaining it and responding to public questions about it. Mission Hill’s teachers assess cognitive and non-cognitive skills in these defenses, knowing such skills are essential to students’ success in learning, work and life.

Mission Hill’s teachers remind us that while standardized testing is assessment, assessment is not merely standardized testing. Assessment itself is not a problem, nor is frequent assessment. The problem that frustrates many is that teachers - the professionals who are closest to the students - are so constrained by top-down controls that they are unable to define the purpose of assessment and the types of assessment to use in order to achieve their purpose -- to improve learning among individual students. Too many teachers do not have the collective authority to make learning (not time) the constant. They do not have the authority to choose an approach to learning and assessment that recognizes and accommodates varying levels of readiness, interests, aptitudes, and rates of learning.

Mission Hill teachers and other teachers who are in the position to call the shots are beginning to shift the national conversation about the purpose, frequency and types of assessment that schools can embrace. Assessment and other learning activities can be in service of students and their individualized learning. Also, assessments that are in the service of students can be used for external accountability. Learning activities need not be in service to external accountability.

What could happen with the national approach to assessment and accountability if more teachers were calling the shots?

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent education policy consultant based in Orange County, CA and a Senior Associate with Education Evolving. She is lead author of “Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots.”

Watch A Year at Mission Hill.

The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.