Most people who care about the debate over the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act know that testing is a hot topic. But as the Senate HELP committee continues its bipartisan process and as the House votes on amendments to its Student Success Act (
like H.R. 5 amendment #74), let’s be clear: local assessments to supplant statewide summative assessments (for transparency or accountability) is not a good political or policy compromise. Why? At least these four reasons:
1. Technically, It’s Hard Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of classroom and district assessments. They serve a vital purpose for teaching and learning, but that doesn’t mean they can or should stand up to the rigor needed in an assessment being used for a local or state accountability system. For instance, does every item in a classroom-developed test go through a multi-tiered review to make sure it:
Doesn't have gender, racial or economic bias?
Is fair for students with disabilities or English language learners?
Actually measures the standards it’s intended to (i.e., the math knowledge, not the ability to read the question to understand the math question being asked)?
Also: Have cognitive labs been used to pilot the items? Has a field test been used to ensure the items (as compiled in the test book) work together? Are the accommodations appropriate? Is the testing environment and administration being controlled for external variables? Are test security measures being applied? And to demonstrate that one district’s test is measuring the same standards at the same level of validity as another district’s test is another whole layer of complexity. I won't even get into what this takes, but let’s just say the onus of districts and states to show this will cost additional resources, take significant expert capacity, and time. If your eyes haven’t glazed over yet, you get my point. From a mere
technical perspective, it is very difficult (and expensive) to ensure that locally-developed tests are fair.
2. Apples-to-Apples Comparisons A significant benefit of a statewide assessment is that it enables parents, community members, and district and state leaders to make apples-to-apples comparisons in terms of how their children and their schools are performing. If “proficient” means one thing in District A and another in District B, we are all hindered from identifying successes, areas of need, and achievement gaps. We lose both transparency and our ability to make meaningful comparisons across districts. We’re unable to compare growth across districts. It’s that much harder for colleges and universities to know if “proficient” really means college-ready.
3. Gaps? What Gaps? With local tests, districts and states will be able to more easily mask achievement gaps or underperformance since there is no common bar. This would exacerbate existing systemic inequities between high poverty and low poverty communities and allow adults to apply different academic expectations to different groups of students solely based on geography.
4. Undermining Choice and Clarity of Taxpayer Investments Not having comparable data across districts impairs our ability to support a system that allows for school choice and options. How can a parent compare data and make an informed decision for their child if the data isn’t comparable? How will authorizers hold charter schools accountable in a transparent manner if the data isn’t the same across the state? We also reduce our ability to measure if state and local dollars are being invested wisely and have an impact on student progress and achievement. Forget meaningful return on investment measures and the ability to evaluate programs success across districts and student groups. It may be rhetorically attractive to call this “local control” and to promote a policy that allows for local assessments to take the place of statewide assessments. But when you consider the policy, the implementation and what’s right for kids, this proposal just doesn't pass the test.
Ann Whalen is senior advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Prior to returning to the U.S. Department of Education, she served as the director of policy for Education Post. Whalen has served more than five years in the Obama Administration with the U.S. Department of Education. At the department, Ann was director of the Implementation and Support Unit, providing technical assistance to ...