How can assessment improve educational outcomes for African-Americans? That was the focus of a conference I attended this week at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.
As the speakers made clear, however, that might not have been the right question. Or at least, not everyone agreed on the question.
There was no doubt about the problem the participants wanted to address. Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, laid out the stark, if familiar, data on achievement gaps from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). As she noted, although African-American performance in mathematics has improved substantially over the past four decades--particularly at the fourth grade level--the achievement gap between white students and African-American students has barely budged, after narrowing in the 1970s and 1980s. Even in states where African-Americans perform relatively well, such as Massachusetts, the gaps remain large.
Several speakers suggested that these gaps reflected the unequal opportunities to learn in American schools. Vast disparities in spending mean that suburban districts, which are predominantly white, have much more ample resources than schools in cities, where most students are people of color. And even within schools, the prevalence of tracking means that curriculum opportunities are not equal: more advanced classes allow for projects that engage students in deep learning, while lower-tracked classes offer more rote learning. Indeed, Carr pointed out that gaps within schools are larger than the gaps between schools.
But as Linda Darling-Hammond, the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, noted, tests are not just neutral recorders of this phenomenon. Tests themselves help create it by signaling to teachers what and how to teach--especially when high stakes ride on test results. And when tests measure relatively low-level knowledge and skills, as many tests for accountability have, teachers tend to teach to a relatively low level.
There are some promising developments. Researchers are developing much better assessments that measure a broader range of student competencies and support better instruction. And some instructional and assessment programs are aimed directly at the learning needs of African-Americans. For example, the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the College Board have developed a capstone Advanced Placement course on the African Diaspora that includes an array of assessments that tap students’ deeper learning competencies.
But accountability still looms large. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes some provisions that are intended to relax the heavy grip tests held on instruction; for example, the law states that states can use projects and portfolios as part of their measures of school performance, and that states should use multiple measures of performance, not just tests. But the ESSA plans states submitted to the federal government this week suggest that change is moving slowly. States will continue to use English language arts and mathematics tests as the primary gauge of school performance, and few are broadening these measures to include projects or portfolios. The National Academies might want to book a room for a similar conference in a couple of years.
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