Duncan: New Assessments Will Be “Game-Changing”

By Catherine Gewertz — September 03, 2010 2 min read
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As you know if you’ve been reading this space, Ed Secretary Arne Duncan announced the winners of the Race to the Top assessment competition yesterday. (Check our story here for a catch-up if needed.)

We linked you to his speech yesterday, but it’s meaty enough that it’s worth revisiting today. It’s not that there was anything new or groundbreaking in the address; it’s just that Duncan situates the assessment announcement more fully in the context of the administration’s priorities and goals than is often the case. If you had any doubt about what Duncan and his boss envision for teaching, learning, and testing in America, this speech will clear that right up for you.

One of the things that jumps off the pages here is the elevated place Duncan gave teachers in the discussion of assessment. He emphasized that the new tests will produce useful feedback for them, in real time, on how well students are learning. He lauded the way the assessments will seek to gauge mastery of more complex types of knowledge and skills, capturing a fuller portrait of what students can do. And he said that by capturing that wider range, the tests lend themselves to the use of richer curriculum.

In short, he said, these will be the assessments teachers have “longed for.” (Yes, he did say “longed for.”)

Teachers were high on the radar when he talked about implementation, too. Seeking to ease worries, he promised that the new tests will not just be dropped into teachers’ laps, but that they will be involved in designing and scoring them.

He even threw in a reference to how teachers themselves should be judged (“multiple measures... let me say that one more time: multiple measures”), taking a poke at us schleps in the news media who haven’t sufficiently captured this point to his satisfaction (see here and here for a bit of evidence to the contrary).

But hey, wait, was this speech about student assessment, or teacher evaluation? Perhaps the teacher-eval stuff was just a nice dovetail into the context about the administration’s priorities and goals. Because that stuff certainly formed a nice soft seat for the assessment talk. There was the mention of how common standards and assessments only cover math and English/language arts now, but science, history, civics, arts and other topics are also crucial, and the administration wants to spend $1 billion to ensure a “well rounded education” in high needs schools. There was the reminder that Duncan & Co. want the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act to let states include subjects other than math and English in their accountability systems. There was the tidbit about millions set aside for research to develop tests in science, history and foreign language, and the expressed hope that states can collaborate on new science assessments.

And in case none of that was really clear, Duncan wanted to highlight something he said was one of the “least appreciated elements” of President Obama’s school reform vision: his determination to reverse the narrowing of curriculum that’s evolved under No Child Left Behind.

While they won’t deliver us to “educational nirvana” (really? it sorta sounded for a moment there like they might), new-age assessments play a key role in driving profound improvements, Duncan said. Exactly what the new assessments drive, and who will be in the driver’s seat, will be an interesting story to watch.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.