Assessment Opinion

Assessment vs. Accountability

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 03, 2013 5 min read
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This is a critical time in which leaders have many roles to play. Because the reform process has proven, so far, to be flawed, local leaders are called upon to stand with integrity and guide communities to compliance and, beyond compliance, to opportunity. The standardized tests that have been developed to assess the Common Core Standards are supposed to be only one of many measures of student growth and only one of many measures for teacher and principal performance. No one is feeling that. Students, parents, teachers, and principals are directly affected by that singular measure. We are conditioned, socialized even, to respond to tests whether they are one of many or a singular measure. To some degree, our field has created that test phenomenon.

We grade most efforts in schools. Teachers grade students’ work. The intent is to communicate to the students and their parents or guardians how well students understand the information and skills taught. It also indicates to the teacher what information needs to be reviewed or retaught, which students may need extra help or differentiated instruction, and which students need to be helped to better engage with the material being taught. These grades become a shorthand message with the intent to assess learning. They also allow us to group and rank and compete. We like assessment results when they guide us. But the standardized assessments being used in this reform effort are different. They are meant to measure all of us and, according to experts and common sense, there is a lot more to be done before they are to be valuable measurements.

Grant Wiggins has worked in educational assessment reform for over 25 years. He is a well-known and respected name in the field. In his book, Assessing student performance: Exploring the purpose and limits of testing, published in 1993, he described the limits of testing in an assessment system, the appropriate uses of assessment as they relate to improving student performance, the limits of using assessment as an audit of performance, and how some assessments better serve the designers than the students. We note the date of publication, as we have in many other posts. There has been enough research to inform decisions and reform. How is it we, as a profession, do not learn? Or, how is it that we, ourselves, fail at learning? Is there a hubris at work that closes our ears?

With those questions in mind, it was helpful to read Grant Wiggin’s November 14th post entitled, ‘Genuine vs. sham accountability.’ He, too, is wondering why information known years ago hasn’t influenced practice. Much of his post was written over a decade ago. Now, he comments:

The situation today is even worse because the stakes are higher, the arcane mathematical formulae are even more indecipherable, and fewer and fewer states release items and item analysis after testing for careful and helpful study.

We agree with his concern:

As I have long said, accountability is important. It’s how we improve, based on legitimate feedback and responsiveness to results. The current system is not only a sham, it is pulling down with it the Common Core Standards as ‘collateral damage’ even though there is nothing in the Standards to link them to these wretched accountability policies.

We applaud Wiggin’s boldness as he steps up and says:

The Standards can help us. The current draconian and hypocritical state policies are likely to kill not just the Standards but public education.

He introduces a crossroads, perhaps one federal and state leaders would rather not consider. Will they abandon the CCS to protect the tests? It takes us to their belief systems. Do they believe that the CCS are enough to motivate real reform or do they believe that the field must be monitored to do the right thing? Everyone would agree that public schools should be accountable. We receive public funds and secure the future of democracy. But, where children are involved, the “how to” becomes challenging.

Schools can improve...always. The highest performing schools, for the most part, are schools in higher income areas. Schools are struggling in poorer rural and urban areas. But, even in those wealthy schools, there are children who don’t do so well. And overall, our competitiveness, globally, is at risk. We do need a bold reform agenda, one even bigger than CCS and student tests and adult accountability. We need one that opens minds and creativity. We need one that radically changes how schools are funded. We need one that reinvents classroom and school house. We need to change our calendars and keep our youth engaged in learning year round. We need one that envisions less brick and mortar “come to me” and more community connection. And, we need one that brings little ones to school at 4 and allows them move on, whenever they are ready, to the next level.

In May of 1964, LBJ made a speech referred to as the “Great Society Speech” in which he said,

A third place to build the Great Society is in the classrooms of America. There your children’s lives will be shaped. Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination. We are still far from that goal.

It remains the goal we have today. We want all our students to learn and think and imagine. It is ridiculous to think otherwise. So while we are struggling for compliance, let’s remember how committed we are to each child and to improving our methods and raising our standards. But, let’s also remember that measuring degree of change is different from measuring student achievement and from ensuring system accountability. We have reverted to the latter because we do not know how to do the former and because, in the end, the students are our final measure. So, at this moment state and federal policies are making it difficult to do our work and are demanding measures from assessments that make no sense yet. We, as local leaders, must begin thinking beyond the moment. If we don’t, we become pawns on the board.

We have asked to slow the speed of the reform. We have asked to modify the assessment plan. What will happen if we are heard? What will happen if it does slow down or if some of the assessments are withdrawn? Are we ready with our own plan? How will we forge ahead into this unknown territory if we are not being driven by others? We need to begin to articulate our vision and our plan to put balance on the board. At the very least, we need to have profound insight into what needs to be done locally and coalesce our communities around an educational agenda...one with standards and accountability and more and with children at its core. We believe we will be heard and, then, we must be ready. At least we hope that is what happens.

Wiggins, Grant P. (1993) Assessing student performance: Exploring the purpose and limits of testing. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.