There are several reasons why I’d like to pay a visit to Vermont this time of year. First, while we are baking in a 100 degree hotbox, the high temperature in the capital of Montpelier, Vermont today is projected to be a lovely 79 degrees. I also love maple syrup and hiking in the woods, both of which are in plentiful supply in Vermont. Most of all, I want to go to the next meeting of the Vermont State Board of Education, rise up in the middle of the meeting, and give them a rousing, raise the roof standing ovation!
What this group of Vermont education leaders did last week is worthy of widespread love and acknowledgment. After all the turmoil we have endured in our state relative to public education reform over the past few years, it is nice to see that some states can still stand up for their schools.
In case you missed it, on August 19th the Vermont State Board of Education adopted a statement and resolution on assessment and accountability. I encourage you to read the full document (HERE). You will likely be shouting “Amen” as you read through the Board’s eight guiding principles for the appropriate use of standardized tests. These folks actually get it. While I recognize that these are just words on paper at this point, they are beautiful words that sing to my heart!
The Board starts by recognizing that uniform standardized tests can be a useful tool for helping schools chart a path toward successful delivery of well-designed standards.
What standardized tests can do that teacher developed tests cannot do is give us reliable, comparative data. We can use test scores to tell whether we are doing better over time.
Of particular note, standardized tests help monitor how well we serve students with different life circumstances and challenges. When used appropriately, standardized tests are a sound and objective way to evaluate student progress.
I think most of us agree with this premise and support the use of appropriate summative assessments as one input for continuous school improvement. However, the Vermont BOE quickly pivots from this statement to say (emphasis mine):
Standardized tests like the NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) and soon, the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium), can tell us something about how students are doing in a limited set of narrowly defined subjects overall, as measured at a given time. However, they cannot tell us how to help students do even better. Nor can they adequately capture the strengths of all children, nor the growth that can be ascribed to individual teachers. And under high-stakes conditions, when schools feel extraordinary pressure to raise scores, even rising scores may not be a signal that students are actually learning more. At best, a standardized test is an incomplete picture of learning: without additional measures, a single test is inadequate to capture a years’ worth of learning and growth.
The Board uses this statement as the jumping off point for the eight principles that follow. I will summarize them below, but again, you should read the document yourself.
1) The proper role standardized testing. “The purpose of any large-scale assessment must be clearly stated and the assessments must be demonstrated as scientifically and empirically valid for that purpose(s) prior to their use. This includes research and verification as to whether a student’s performance on tests is actually predictive of performance on other indicators we care about, including post-secondary success, graduation rates and future employment.” In other words, they want to make sure that tests actually measure things that are important for success in the 21st century, and not rote recall of subjectively selected trivia and knowledge.
2) Public reporting requirement. Schools should absolutely be accountable to their citizens; however, these reports should include a “diverse and comprehensive set of school quality indicators in local school, faculty and community communications.” And they should look nothing like Oklahoma’s ridiculous A-F report cards (I added that part).
3) Judicious and proportionate testing. We should reduce the amount of time spent of summative, standardized testing and encourage the federal government to revise current testing requirements because “excessive testing diverts resources and time away from learning while providing little additional value for accountability purposes.” Is Arne Duncan listening? Maybe, I will come back to this one.
4) Test development criteria. All standardized tests should be developed and properly vetted by reputable educational research organizations such as the American Educational Research Association, the National Council on Measurement in Education, and the American Psychological Association. What? I didn’t notice any mention of Pearson, ETS, or CTB/McGraw-Hill. Other people can write tests too?
5) Value-added scores. I LOVE this one! “As a strong body of recent research has found that there is no valid (or reliable) method of calculating value-added scores…we will not be using them in Vermont for any consequential purpose.” To paraphrase, “they suck and we’re not using them.” Uh-oh, wait until Arne finds out!
6) Mastery level or Cut-off scores.This one is so good, I have to just copy and paste this whole paragraph (emphasis mine):
While the federal government continues to require the use of subjectively determined cut-off score, employing such metrics lacks scientific foundation. The skills needed for success in society are rich and diverse. Consequently, there is no single point on a testing scale that has proven accurate in measuring the success of a school or in measuring the talents of an individual. Claims to the contrary are technically indefensible and their application would be unethical.
7) Use of cut scores and proficiency categories for reporting purposes. Again, me paraphrasing: “The federal government says we have to do this, but these metrics are invalid, misleading, and mostly crap. We will continue to follow the law, but wish the feds would pull their heads out and change this policy.”
8) The Federal, State and Local Obligation for Assuring Adequacy and Equality of Opportunity. The government cannot keep higher performance without providing adequate and equitable resources for schools. In short, the government needs to put its money where its mouth is!
The Board concludes by making several strongly worded resolutions, prefaced by this awesome statement:
“WHEREAS, the culture and structure of the systems in which students learn must change in order to foster engaging school experiences that provide joy in learning, depth of thought and breadth of knowledge for students.
The three Board resolutions are succinct and spot-on. First, they call on the Secretary of Education to develop a better school accountability system (and dump the current version). Secondly, they call on the Administration and Congress to “amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind Act) to reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality, eschew the use of student test scores in evaluating educators, and allow flexibility that reflects the unique circumstances of all states.” Finally, they ask us and other state and national groups to join them in this effort.
While there is much work to do, I do believe that the tide is turning. Look at these comments from Secretary Duncan from Thursday’s press release and DOE blog post:
“We also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.”
“I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support and more.”
“(There is) a recognized and growing concern that the quantity of required testing is troubling, in some cases repetitive or “not sufficiently helpful for instruction.” He said the department will work through the fall to reduce over-testing.”
“In too many places, it’s clear that the [testing] yardstick has become the focus.”
“No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone — always on a mix of measures.”
“No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.”
After some of his previous comments relative to testing, it is difficult to believe that these words came from Mr. Duncan. Duncan’s remarks probably reflect two issues. One, he’s actually taken a few baby steps toward the realization that our obsession with testing is causing some negative consequences he and others didn’t foresee. Two, he is very concerned about losing teacher support for Common Core. Teachers were leaning in his direction in the early implementation of the standards, but their support has been eroding steadily. As revealed by the latest Gallop Poll/PDK poll, he has already lost the support of the general population with 60% of the public now opposed to CCSS and a snowball-like rollback occurring in legislatures across the nation.
So now Duncan is listening to teachers — you probably noticed he said that a bunch of times in his prepared remarks — and is trying to gain back their confidence and support by saying, Clinton-like, “I feel your pain” when it comes to standardized testing.
I will remain skeptical about whether or not Duncan has experienced a genuine change of heart on standardized testing. But these remarks, coupled with the Vermont BOE’s Resolution and other similar initiatives across our nation make me cautiously optimistic.
It is just a sliver of light, but after navigating the dark corridors of education reform for the past decade, it is something to build on.
Do you think our state legislators would support a similar resolution as Vermont’s in the next session? I am fairly certain we won’t get there yet with our current Board membership. What if our local superintendents, parent groups, and university researchers applied some pressure? This IS doable. We must seize the initiative and continue to make things happen rather than waiting for things to happen to us.
In the meantime, I’ll be pouring a little more maple syrup on my pancakes for a while!