Just Where Did We Lose Those Educational Keys?

Ace Parsi

A man is on his hands and knees, scanning the ground beneath a street lamp. His friend approaches and asks, “What are you doing?” “Looking for my keys,’ he responds. The friend pauses for a moment. “But why are you looking here? This isn’t where you were walking.” The man lifts his head up for a moment and then responds, “I know, but this is where the light is,” and continues looking.

For the last decade, we—students, parents, educators, community members, and policy makers—have been consigned to the role of the man in the story: We are seeking to find learning aligned to 21st century demands but we find ourselves looking under the brightest street lamp, in this case, state student test scores that are predominantly composed of lower-order multiple choice tests. We do this even as a mountain of evidence highlights these tests are not designed to meet all the demands we place on them.

Analysis by the RAND Corporation found that only 2 percent of mathematics items and only 20 percent of English language arts items on current state tests measure higher order skills. These multiple choice tests are also limited in measuring key skills and dispositions such as collaboration, communication, creativity, and grit which employers and postsecondary faculty highlight as essential for success. In other words, that lamp may be the brightest, but it’s not shining on the learning essential for 21st century success.

This learning, as a recent NASBE Public Education Position adopted unanimously by state board members at NASBE’s annual meeting, ensures that a student has not only, “Mastered core academic knowledge, but has attained competency in such areas as problem solving, written and oral communication, teamwork, and self-direction.”

I co-authored with Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, Performance Assessments: How State Policy Can Advance Assessments for 21st Century Learning, that highlights this fact: There is a better way and a number of states are moving towards it. Performance assessments—which we define as assessments that require students to craft their own responses to problems through constructing an answer, producing a product, or performing an activity rather than merely selecting from multiple-choice answers—are much more in line with states’ learning aspirations. They reflect the real demands students face beyond K-12 walls: problems without clearly defined answers that require application of a range of knowledge and skills to solve. As part of a comprehensive assessment system, these assessments can better inform both policy makers’ and educators’ decisions and rather than taking away precious time from student learning, these assessments have the potential to deepen that learning.

As with most issues, there is a gap between potential and reality; that gap can be met with strong policy. Ensuring these assessments succeed means that states have to have a long-term plan to pay for them, educators have been trained to use them, and schools have been given enough time to succeed with the transition. In addition to these three considerations, our paper highlights five other considerations: purpose, accountability, reliability, alignment with other policy, and fairness in meeting the needs of different subgroups. In other words, it’s one thing to decide to put up a street lamp—ensuring that the lamp actually lights up as planned takes a lot more work.

Nobody claims that we have all the answers. We’re just encouraging states to ask the right questions. Educators and policy makers have long decried the amount of time and resources they feel is wasted on low-quality assessments.  A survey by the Council for Great City Schools found that the average eighth grader spent a week outside of their normal classes taking tests and in one large urban district 11th graders spent 27 days taking tests. Persisting down a path of exclusive reliance on lower-order multiple choice tests can only lead to continued frustration and prolonged opportunity gaps. Given the importance of states’ assessment investments, isn’t it about time we find a light worth looking under?

The paper, Performance Assessments: How State Policy Can Advance Assessments for 21st Century Learning, will be released during a January 12th webinar including Mr. Parsi, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, and staff from the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Innovation Lab Network.

For more on assessment, check out:

ace75x75 Ace Parsi is the Project Director for Deeper Learning at the National Association of State Boards of Education.


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