Teaching Opinion

What Secretary Duncan Could Learn About Performance Assessment From Our School

By John T. McCrann — October 08, 2015 4 min read
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So, Secretary Duncan, I hear you are about to have some extra time on your hands? You should definitely take a long, relaxing vacation and play some basketball with your son. I wonder, though, what you will do once you are done with all that. If I may be so presumptuous: I’d like to suggest that you spend some time thinking back on a goal you set back in 2010.

You and I may not agree on everything (I have written on this blog about missed opportunities to integrate schools and promote more genuine teacher leadership during your tenure), but back in 2010, I was really excited to hear you talk about moving “beyond the bubble tests.”

You see, I was an experiential educator before I was a public school math teacher so the idea that we can assess real learning without students performing meaningful tasks has always struck me as strange. Kurt Hahn wrote that it is “culpable neglect not to impel young people into experiences.” My great hope was that we could end the “neglectful” assessment systems that dominated my time as a student and begin

to impel meaningful experiences in assessment under your leadership.

Sadly, this was not to be at the beginning of the Race to the Top era, at least not for me. As a teacher at a struggling apartheid school in the first years after New York won a Race to the Top grant, my day-to-day life became more and more dominated by the single, summative end of year tests that my students had to take (the Regents Exams).

You said: “teachers will consistently have timely, high-quality formative assessments that are instructionally useful and document student growth—rather than just relying on after-the-fact, year-end tests used for accountability purposes.” I experienced a mentee teacher in tears after her students’ scores on a Regents exam were low and she was afraid of administrative repercussions—despite the fact that students had achieved on interim performance assessments.

You said: “the new assessments will better measure the higher-order thinking skills.” I experienced a test that asked students for rote manipulation like Factor the expression x^4 + 6x^2 - 7 completely.

You criticized tests that “rely mainly on multiple choice items with fill-in-the-bubble answers,” yet I see state exams at every level that continue to rely mainly on multiple choice as it is the easiest way to collect data cheaply.

Fortunately for me, I have been able to move beyond the bubble. My school is a proud member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of schools that has accomplished your goal of collecting meaningful, formative data through performance assessment.

As you can see via the link, the Consortium has a long track record of success at engendering “college and career readiness” without testing. All our students must prove proficiency on performance assessments in each core subject area. These assessments ask them to do meaningful work in disciplined habits of mind. Like 21st century workers, they complete the tasks over time and have the opportunity for feedback and revision along the way. They defend this work to a panel of teachers and experts in the academic field.

Last spring, while many of New York state’s students were embroiled in controversy over tests for which you advocated (your successor, Dr. King, was here fighting for them), my students and I were happily insulated from the controversy. Most of them were too busy solving complex problems on topics like how to maximize efficiency for a shipping container to send supplies to victims of natural disasters, and writing 5 to 10 page math papers about them. But one student asked me about what she had seen in the news.

“Are we opting out of the Regents?” she asked. “No,” I replied, “we’re opting in to a different way of assessing what you know.”

So, Secretary Duncan, now that you have more free time, we at Harvest Collegiate would love to think with you about how to accomplish the goal you set in 2010. Let’s move beyond the bubble tests. Why don’t you come by this winter, sit on a defense panel, and talk with us about how we can make that happen?

Photo 1: Kurt Hahn founded Outward Bound on his philosophy of experiential education and performance assessment. A group of Outward Bound participants with physical disabilities after completing a ropes course, c. 1996. “CircleOfFriends” by Original uploader was Jtneill at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; Transfer was stated to be made by User:Jtneill.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CircleOfFriends.jpg#/media/File:CircleOfFriends.jpg

Photo 2: “Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs” by Onderwijsgek at nl.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 nl via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cito_Eindtoets_Basisonderwijs.JPG#/media/File:Cito_Eindtoets_Basisonderwijs.JPG

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The opinions expressed in Prove It: Math and Education Policy 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.