The following is from a WORD file on my computer:
Imagine if school basketball seasons ended in a special test of discrete drills, on the last day of the winter, in which the players – and coaches – did not know in advance which drills they would be asked to do. Imagine further that they would not know which shots went in the basket until the summer, after the season and school were over. Imagine further that statisticians each year invented a different (and secret) series of such “tests of basketball.” And formulae for generating a single score against a standard. Finally, imagine a reporting system in which the coach and players receive only the single scores – without knowing exactly which specific drills were done well and which were not.
The inevitable would then happen (since these new basketball test results would be reported in the newspaper). Imagine what happens to coaches and coaching. Coaches would stop worrying about complex performance (i.e. real games) entirely, to concentrate on having students practice the most likely to be tested drills – at the expense of student engagement and genuine learning.
Who would improve at the real game under these conditions?
Yet, this is what is happening nationally as “accountability of schools,” based on a handful of tests that provide woefully sketchy and delayed feedback, on tasks that do not reflect real achievement.
Where the results are hard-to-fathom proxies for genuine performance.
Where the test is unknown until test day.
Where the feedback comes after the end of the school year, so it cannot be used to improve the performance of the students tested (and their coaches’ coaching). And where the feedback is inscrutable.
Where “coaches” end up pressured to focus on a handful of superficial indicators instead of the larger aims of learning.
We should not be surprised, then, that there is a rising tide of disenchantment with current testing in many professional and public quarters. Key educational organizations do not support the current approach. Nor do such citizen groups as diverse as the PTA and School Boards Association. Not because key groups want to avoid accountability for schools, but because the current approach doesn’t provide it.
No one’s interests – not those of policy-makers, taxpayers, parents, teachers, and especially students – are adequately served by a so-called accountability system that relies exclusively on a handful of secret “audit” tests. The current approach causes an impoverished “teaching to the test items” instead of rich and creative instruction and assessment. Policymakers need to understand why the effect is harmful even if the intentions are noble.
What is genuine accountability? As the analogy suggests, then, the current system really offers only the illusion of accountability.
Accountability is ‘responsibility for’ and ‘responsiveness to’ results, as the dictionary reminds us. Teachers who are sometimes deemed unwilling by the public to be held accountable are the same educators who serve as athletic coaches and teachers in the performing and vocational arts – where they are happy to be held responsible for performance results, since the tasks are worthy, the scores are valid and (over time) reliable, and the whole system is public and fair. But if “coaches” and “players” never know from test to test the specific “game” upon which evaluation will be made, how can they be truly responsible for the results? And when the results come back in the summer (in cryptic form), how can teachers actually be responsive to the results? As a feedback system our current tests and value-added scores are a complete failure, in other words, regardless of the worthwhile attention to standards they foster.
We propose a better way, a new assessment and accountability system, based on common-sense principles about how people get better – teachers as well as students. A more responsive system based on helpful and timely feedback designed to improve learning and teaching, not just audit it. A system that makes local assessment and teacher judgement more central to state accountability. A system designed to provide incentives for school renewal and on-going professional development. A system that will inspire more creative teaching instead of more fearful compliant behavior.
Why did I say that this is ‘on my computer’? Because it is a paper I wrote over a decade ago, in support of a proposed accountability system for the state of New Jersey that was commissioned and endorsed by three different state organizations in response to the first wave of state testing.
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.
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.
I have a single question for all critics or doubters on this subject: would you happily be held accountable under the equivalent of these new state-run systems? There is only one word – harsh though it is – to apply in this situation. Hypocrisy.
If you are expressly or tacitly behind this one-mysterious-score-hopelessly-ineffective feedback system, then you are a hypocrite.
i say this with confidence. No one would happily work under such a policy, in any field. You would fight it in your own job. Shame on the unions for going along. Shame on the national professional associations for not going against it. (In Massachusetts, the associations DID work together and resisted the single accountability score that New York and New Jersey put in place.)
The Standards can help us. The current draconian and hypocritical state policies are likely to kill not just the Standards but public education.
In my next post, I will describe the accountability system I proposed 13 years ago. (It is feasible: it was based on actual experience in North Carolina for the Standards and Accountability Commission chaired by Governor Hunt, in which over a two year period we developed locally-scored performance tasks and portfolios that were used in a state-wide pilot with positive results and feedback.)