Educators Must ‘Take Control’ of Testing at ‘Critical Juncture,’ Top Ed. Official Says

By Catherine Gewertz — March 19, 2015 3 min read
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Assessment has reached a “critical juncture” in the public-policy debate, and educators must “take control” of the issue as the field struggles to define the appropriate place of testing in K-12 education, a top Education Department official said Wednesday.

The comments by Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, came at a panel discussion during Education Week‘s Leaders To Learn From event honoring 16 K-12 leaders. (You can watch the discussion of testing in this clip of the livestream, too. It starts at about the 17:45-minute mark.)

Given the administration’s support of a high-profile push for states and districts to carefully evaluate their testing regimens, EdWeek editor-in-chief Virginia B. Edwards asked Delisle to comment on the department’s view of the appropriate balance of local and state testing.

Delisle didn’t offer any formula or breakdown to guide decisions on how much time to spend on state and district tests. But she come out strongly for the value of testing, saying that teachers can’t properly gauge students’ learning without “some kind of an assessment system” in place.

She urged state and local education leaders to reflect not just on how many tests they’re using, but why they’re using those tests. Too often, she said, when she talks with officials about assessment, it’s clear that they are just continuing longstanding assessments without much reflection, or because a current vendor contract hasn’t yet lapsed.

“We’re in a place right now where we—we in the field—have to take control of this,” Delisle said. "... We are at a really critical juncture here, so that while we want to be accountable, we have to define what the narrative on accountability is.”

She said that the department is trying to encourage innovation in accountability by working with states that are experimenting with new forms of assessment. She mentioned the CORE districts in California, which incorporate measures of student engagement and social-emotional skills in their local accountability systems, and four districts in New Hampshire, which recently won department permission to try local assessments. Another state—which she wouldn’t name, saying it is still in early discussions with the department—is trying to work out a system of “chunking out” its summative assessments into three or four sections across the school year, with each “chunk” administered after a given set of standards is taught.

“Folks have really great ideas,” she said. “We have to figure out how we give the green space for that to grow and support that.”

Delise also addressed the growing issue of assessment opt-outs, saying that the department has not waived its requirement that all students take the same test annually, and that schools test 95 percent of their students or risk sanctions. She discussed the range of sanctions the department can impose (including, by the way, withholding federal funds other than Title I funds if a concentration of opting out occurs in a higher socioeconomic region). My colleague, Alyson Klein, has more for you on Delisle’s opt-out comments on the Politics K-12 blog.

EdWeek’s Edwards pressed Delisle on the administration’s view of how test scores are used, since the consequences of testing is a particular sore point among educators and activists. Delisle said that the education department had “grown” on that issue, softening its stance in response to a sense from the field that expecting schools to transition to new standards and tests, and simultaneously use test scores in teacher and principal evaluations, was “too much too soon.”

She noted, however, that some states have stuck too rigidly to a formulaic approach to test scores in evaluations. She said that the department doesn’t spell out a specific weight that test scores must carry in evaluations, even though “it’s a misrepresentation across the country” that it does so.

“I’m a little disheartened where in some states they’ve taken such a robust, dig-their-heels-in-the-sand... that teacher evaluation absolutely has to incorporate this percentage of growth, when they may not have been able to run the data to figure out, should it be 50 [percent]? Should it be 10? Should it be 14?” Delisle said.

“We have to pledge to learn from the new assessments that are coming out and figure out what is the data telling us,” she said. “This is where we have to get to the next level of accountability, to figure out what’s the appropriate place for the assessments in that, and more importantly, what does that mean for the school versus individual teachers?”

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