EdReform & Innovation: The End of The Big Test is in Sight

How could anyone be in favor of innovative learning and an education reform agenda that includes standardized tests? An angry comment, in response to our look at project-based explorations at High Tech High (featured in this new film), questioned the paradox of innovation and education reform.

The link is equity. Schools of choice and measurement are both EdPolicy efforts to promote more equitable outcomes. Like any intervention, there are good examples and unintended consequences. Let’s consider the upside and downside of EdReform and innovation and what we can learn about the path forward.

EdReform. Let’s face it, the modern version of EdReform, as ensconced in NCLB, didn’t work as well as hoped. While the equity-seeking consensus that supported the 2002 bill was inspiring, it fell apart before the iterative development needed to fix the flaws could begin

Intended  Unintended
Standards Ensures consistently high expectations Narrows and segments learning into a checklist
Assessments Expose learning gaps and underserved populations Weak tests are used for too many purposes
Accountability Promotes quality options Inadequately measures progress on a broad set of outcomes
Test-based Evaluation Supports the goal of a good teacher in every classroom Inadequately measures contribution of a team on a broad set of outcomes
Together Guides incremental improvement Can lead to mind-numbing test prep; reinforces age cohort model

Modern EdReform was baked in an era of data poverty, a time when no one other than teachers knew how their students were doing. When I became a school district superintendent 20 years ago I had almost no information about the level and rate of learning of our students. We were flying blind. My second year was informed by state test data which at least provided some comparable information to monitor progress and quality.

Because we had so little data, the new state tests were used for everything including improving instruction, measuring school quality, evaluating teachers, and managing student matriculation. With more accountability around decisions in each category, the tests grew in importance, and they got longer. With tight state budgets and psychometric fixation on reliability, the tests relied heavily on easy to score multiple choice questions.

This formula of strong accountability with inadequate instruments led, in many districts with weak leadership, to focus on mind numbing test preparation, which is a terrible unintended consequence perpetrated most frequently on children from low-income families that most needed powerful learning experiences.

As part of the stimulus bill, the Race to the Top grant program included funds for development of better tests. Two state consortia designed tests with more reading and writing and more challenging problem solving. They decided against automatic scoring (despite good evidence of effectiveness) so the tests were expensive. Because the stakes remained so high for the everything-for-everyone tests, they grew into a giant week long affair. For good (and sometimes political) reasons, it looks like America called BS on that idea.

Now that we’re a few years into the age of data abundance, good schools know how every student is doing every day in every subject, making the idea of stopping school for a week to find out what kids know seems ridiculous. Students in technology rich classrooms receive constant performance feedback. Visualization tools turn piles of data into simple graphs allowing students, teachers, and parents to monitor progress, and to use the right information at the right time for the right decision.  (See Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles.)

Give both progress and protest, it is clear that we’re at the beginning of the end of large scale summative assessment. Unfortunately, we don’t have well informed environments at scale. As soon as we figure out how to help teachers combine formative data from many sources and how to measure student academic growth on a comparable basis, states will be able to ditch week-long end of year tests in favor of lightweight alternatives.

Innovation. EdReform (narrowly defined) is an attempt to use public policy to drive improvement in the education system we have. Innovation is creating new learning environments, experiences and tools in order to achieve dramatic outcome improvement.

While I support the equity aims of reform, I decided four years ago that trench warfare of EdReform was becoming increasingly unproductive. I spent much of the last decade supporting EdReform efforts but will spend the rest of my career on innovation because it appears to be the best opportunity to to help a billion young people prepare for their future.

Synthesis. There is an underlying premise to this blog, you could almost call it a theory of change, that suggests a synthesis of EdReform aims and the opportunity of innovation:

  1. Excellence and equity in education is the most important issue for the American economy and society; even more so for developing economies.
  2. Expanding access to high quality learning experiences requires innovation particularly new learning tools and formats.
  3. Learning online holds great promise for improved productivity and expanded access; new school formats that blend online learning and onsite support and application have the potential to prepare more kids for the idea economy.
  4. Blended learning environments leverage great teachers and improve working conditions and career options.
  5. Producing and scaling innovation requires focused investment suggesting an important and complementary role for the private sector; most important advances will be the result of public-private partnerships.
  6. Expanding opportunities for education entrepreneurs and the ability to approach old problems in new ways requires more sophisticated advocacy, particularly the use of new media to amplify impact.

Back to the blog comment, I don’t like week long standardized tests either but I appreciate the reason that we have them, we are much more aware of the inequities in our public delivery system than we were 20 years ago. We’ll soon invent ways to combine formative assessment that will replace the need for week long end of year tests. Our public systems will soon adopt broader measures of success and innovative educators will develop student-centered learning environments and progressions. We’ll innovate our way out of the EdReform quagmire but as we ditch the bargains of the last decade (like NCLB) I hope we retain the commitment to equity.

For more, check out:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Aurora Moore

Thank you for this cogent explanation of how we got here, and the merits behind Congress' unwillingness to let go of test-based accountability. The problem, as I see it, is that as a field, we never really committed to equity for two reasons: We never looked objectively at the fiscal resources necessary to create equitable opportunity, ignoring the vast disparities in spending by state, by district and by school. And two, we never considered whether schools really made the most sense as units of analysis for accountability purposes. In San Francisco under SIG this meant that huge amounts of money were poured into schools with small numbers of students, while low performing students attending "good" schools across town received no resources at all. It meant that good neighborhood schools with strong leaders were closed because too many of the city's extremely poor children attended them, and that "transformation" schools had huge demographic shifts as whiter wealthier parents saw the value of sending their children to SIG schools that had received the best new technology and a host of after school programs. This might read like an improvement, but not for the equity reasons we care about.

The key to innovating out of EdReform quagmire is to continue innovating at the field level, to make those innovations as available to all schools as possible, and to taking a hard look at the way resources are matched with individual student needs. Blended learning and the use of new media are important innovations, but won't get us out of the quagmire if we keep avoiding the root causes of why innovations don't scale. 30 kids in a room with one teacher might actually be a recipe for failure; in working with teachers who are implementing IPADs as part of a large STEM grant, I've seen that putting a device in the hands of those 30 kids does surprisingly little to address that design problem. Further, the additional funds that make this technology possible will sunset. What's the investment opportunity from the private sector that could sustain this important work?

Unfortunately, the design components of what it really takes to provide an equitable opportunity to learn cannot be skipped over with technology and innovation. We've been trying that for over 50 years.


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks for your comment Aurora. We agree that equitable resources are key to broader success. We've argued that public funding should be weighted so that students that bring more risk factors to school also bring more funding with them. Here's the paper:

Samuel Mahaffy

Thank you for your important voice and insights. I concur that it is time for "broader measures of success" During these weeks when so many highly capable students are being 'wait-listed' at great schools, we must ask if we are missing the boat in failing to invest more in innovative learning environments. I hope the conversation deepens to ask: "Why education?" and we find an answer larger than an economic one. With great respect for the contributions and leadership you bring, Samuel Mahaffy, Ph.D.


Tom Vander Ark

Thank you Dr Mahaffy. In community conversations about what grads should know and be able to do, it is clear that parents and employers want broader measures of success. We discuss this conversation here:

We continue to search for districts and networks leading the way with a broader dashboard.

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