An Open Letter to Senator Franken…on ESEA Renewal and testing

February 5, 2015 at 12:35 PM Leave a comment

Dear Senator Franken,

I appreciated your question during a recent hearing on ESEA Renewal and competitive grants when you asked how we could redesign our tests to better measure what we want our children to develop…critical thinking, creativity, etc. While this is a noble goal, I believe it is not the role of the Federal government to regulate the heights to which our children could soar. That is what the partnership between educators and families in their school communities must pursue relentlessly.

From a regulatory standpoint, I believe the primary role of government is to establish the minimum acceptable standard for PreK-12 education. Much of the discussion about testing in the government arena has been misplaced. Essentially, critics of existing standardized tests are concerned that we should look for optimal levels of cognitive development in our assessments. In the former case, we are ensuring that all students reach the floor at each level of education, a necessary prerequisite for initiating work toward the next higher set of objectives. In the latter case, we are trying to define the ceiling for the children, something that should never be constrained by any artificial limits, especially not through government regulation.

That said, educators across the nation should be accountable periodically for minimum standards of achievement, or benchmarks, for the children. In addition, local managers of education should always have multiple measures of achievement that show evidence of academic progress for each child over time against his or her own previous accomplishments. Such discretionary evidence could include student portfolios, performance tasks, and both informal assessments and standardized tests. Indeed, technology is enabling more sophisticated ways of capturing well-rounded snapshots of students (and teachers) and tracking progress over time. I only mention this non-standard data set because it will require vigilant privacy protection at the Federal level.

As we look at standardized assessments, test items must address the building blocks of cognition as well as the Gestalt of learning. It takes a solid toolkit of knowledge and skills used with accuracy, fluency and some degree of automaticity to think really big thoughts. Flaws in critical thinking alone do not inform us about the missing links in education. And we are assessing children across a range of abilities, many struggling to move beyond concrete skills to higher order thinking. When they miss the mark on applied problems, we still need some simpler problems to identify their strengths and build new learning on comfortable solid ground. As with any minimum standard, the test ultimately gives more information about those functioning on the lower margins than at the top.

As for high stakes, well-educated children simply take each standardized test and ace it. When that is not the case, we educators should reflect on the needs of the children and consider how we might be delivering a service gap in their educations. It is up to the grown-ups to fix the problem…not export it to the children in the form of high anxiety. Unfortunately, this has not yet become a matter of pride for us professionally.

I will cherish the day when our under-served children are ready to face real high-stakes challenges in life, hopefully ones of their choosing, as they excel academically in ways indistinguishable from their more privileged peers. In the meantime, we are left with the remnants of low expectations in too many schools, whether they are persistently failing or simply failing to be inclusive enough with some populations in a superficially successful school. The cause of lifting the trap door to the basement and allowing all children access to the ground floor must be pursued relentlessly in the public sector. Then we can and should talk about raising the bar.

I appreciate your commitment to a high quality education delivery system, and I wish you much success your work with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Very truly yours,

Kathleen T. Wright

SchoolsRetooled.com

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Entry filed under: Data, ESEA-NCLB.

ESEA/NCLB Renewal and Teacher Evaluations A Village of Leaders Trapped in Their Own Stories

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