From the Blog

Rethinking Assessment and Accountability

by David Ruff 

Let me start with a point of acute clarity: quality assessment data on student achievement—down to the individual student—is crucial to ensure equitable and high quality learning for each student. Without trustworthy data on how well students are learning, teachers are unable to know how best to design instruction and curriculum to support students, parents are left unaware and unable to help, students struggle to reflect on their learning and set personal targets, funding decisions are based on hopes rather than strategically targeting needs, and policy decision at the local, state, and federal levels are unattached to results. Simply stated, we can’t realize educational equity without a strong assessment system.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of state-level assessments systems are primarily designed to meet federal statutory requirements, and fail to support most of these needs.

Assuming good intentions, state tests and accompanying accountability systems were originally conceived as a strategy to do much of what is noted above. In practice, however, our current implementation of large-scale testing usually fails to meet these necessary ideas. Most state assessments lack the depth of understanding at either the individual student or classroom level that is necessary to enact quality changes in practice and policy, assess a very limited range of potential knowledge, focus on lower level cognitive demands, and are so tardy in providing results that teachers and students have moved far beyond the scope of the test and are simply unable to to do anything of value for these students by the time the results are available.

This reality is particularly frustrating as we have myriad examples of better assessment strategies that can meet the needs identified above. Recently, the Great Schools Partnership (GSP) has been collaborating with five other national organizations to better understand how we might reframe this effort: 

  • Aurora Institute
  • Center for Assessment
  • Center for Innovation in Education
  • Envision Learning Partners
  • KnowledgeWorks

Through this conversation, we recently published a report on promising assessment trends in K-12 education, highlighting work underway in many states across the country. These are places where districts and state education agencies are working collaboratively to rethink the assessment paradigm over the last 25 years, moving away from a system that effectively publicly shames and blames to a system of deeper understanding. It is our hope that this quality work that is staying true to the deep need for impactful assessment will be able to flourish with help from changes in federal policy and funding.

As we progress with these laudable efforts, I’d like to suggest we seriously push two pretty common sense ideas. First, let’s increase the assessment literacy of teachers and trust them to make quality decisions about the learning of our students. These professionals spend more time, think more deeply about, and understand the learning of our students better than anyone with the possible exception of each student’s family. Teachers understand the learning and achievement of individual students and the impact of the system on all students. They are our most valuable resource but have consistently been pushed aside in our rush for teacher-proof assessments. Improving the assessment literacy of all teachers will take a concerted effort as the assessment literacy of many teachers is not particularly acute, but the potential insight gain that would be gathered from trusting highly trained teachers is unmatched by any other strategy. 

Further, if teachers are making the key judgments on student learning that are used in our accountability systems, these results can immediately start to impact changes in instruction and curriculum, requests for partnership with families, and direct interventions and supports for students. Instead of relying upon our current system that takes months for returns, is only vaguely understood by teachers and families, and largely ignored by students, we could instead have a meaningful understanding of exactly what students know and are able to do and direct avenues to improve this. And while there is a cost involved in deepening assessment literacy for teachers, these costs could be offset over time by shifting away from the significant costs of our current state assessment strategies and redeploying these funds for professional learning.

Secondly, instead of relying upon policymakers and external governing bodies or entities to “hold schools accountable,” let’s reimagine how we can directly collaborate with our communities and families to create joint responsibility and accountability. Families want the best for their children. Communities make huge financial investments in their schools on behalf of students. These partners—along with teachers and students—want students to be successful. Creating accountability systems that report to these constituents, but don’t actually involve them, are destined for failure. Our current accountability systems ignore the complexity of learning and fail to recognize the necessity of broader involvement from educators, families, students, and community members, not just teachers. Creation of a blame and shame system of accountability that places responsibility solely on one part of a complex learning system is destined to have limited positive impact. It is time we rethought our flawed construct of school and district accountability to create powerful involved community accountability that creates and sustains actions to support learning for all students.

I am excited by the work underway in so many states that actually mirrors many of these ideas. State education agency staff are rethinking their roles, moving from external reviewers to collaborators. Teachers are designing better and more accurate classroom assessments that build upon student learning rather than simply measure it. And as families engage, parents and guardians are able to collaborate with their students to support deeper learning.

Please take a look at the report provided by GSP and the above mentioned organizations. These examples are inspiring and provide an insight on learning for all of our students.