Friday, November 23, 2007

Rational Assessment in Nebraska

Update from Nebraska: Promises Worth Keeping

Posted by George Wood at 11/6/07 6:00 AM
Tags: Education Policy

Nebraska continues to be an island of sanity in the midst of the standards and testing movement that disguises itself as school improvement in America today. To remind you, Nebraska’s 517 school districts design their own assessment systems: a portfolio of teachers’ classroom assessments, district tests that measure how well children are meeting locally developed learning standards, a state writing test and at least one nationally standardized test to serve as a reality check. We have featured the work of Nebraskans before in this newsletter (Seeing STARS in Nebraska and Notes From Nebraska) and last month I traveled back to Nebraska for their state-wide assessment conference to see how things are going.

This year’s conference drew participants from not only from Nebraska but from Hawai’i, California, Colorado, and New England. Part of the interest was to see how the system continues to work. But many of us were also curious as to how the School-based, Teacher-led Assessment Reporting System (STARS) was faring given this past summer’s passage of Nebraska Senate Bill 653, a bill that requires for the first time a single statewide test in reading and math.

It is hard to imagine why the legislature would take this action. For the past five years, the STARS system in Nebraska has provided educators and communities with detailed information on how students are doing in their schools. It begins with teachers benefiting from extensive training in how to develop assessments that provide detailed information on how well their students are doing in school. These teachers prepare assessments, keyed to both the state or local standards and the curriculum they teach, administer and score them.

The scores are used not to drive teaching and learning as is the case in so many states where standardized tests drive the curriculum. Instead, Nebraska educators pour over the results and, as one teacher told me during a school visit, ‘if our kids don’t do well on an assessment first we look at our teaching, then we look at the curriculum, and finally we look at the assessment to see if we are doing the best job we can.’ Quite a different story than we hear from across the country where in many schools the school experience is being narrowed to make room for more test preparation.

And the results in Nebraska are all headed in the right way. Scores on the local assessments show students succeeding at rates many states only wish they had. On the one state-wide assessment, a writing test that teachers are involved in developing and scoring, student scores have been improving to the point where 89% of students are proficient and the achievement gap between groups of students is narrowing. If you need more evidence and you like tests you would be pleased to know that similar improvements have been seen on the ACT and the NAEP in Nebraska.

One more thing that should catch any legislator’s eye—the Nebraska system is incredibly cost effective. Since there is only one state-wide test, the amount of money that goes to testing contractors from Nebraska is, ready for this, only 3 cents per student or about $9,000! The rest of the state’s funds for assessment are spent on teacher professional development to enable teachers to have control of the assessment system as opposed to the assessment system controlling them.

This may be why, according to Nebraska Commissioner Doug Christiansen, some legislators and bureaucrats want to push a standardized, one-size-fits all approach to student assessment and school accountability. In his opening address, “Promises worth Keeping” (read the entire speech here) the Commissioner warned that “There are those who would steal our practice and its practice from us. I believe they are afraid of a profession that leads from the inside. I believe they fear what we bring to the conversation. And we bring a lot to the conversation…we bring the deep hearts like those of our mothers, the passion like that of a champion athlete, the relentlessness like that of the mountain climber, and the spirit like that of the artist. And, we bring the most important and precious piece of all to the table, the voices of our children…”

The standards and accountability movement in American education has a kernel of wisdom in it—we want high standards for all kids and we want to hold our system of education accountable for helping every child meet those standards. The problem is that this agenda has been hijacked by some who feel that the only way to improve schools is to standardized them and link accountability to a narrow band of test scores. This strategy takes control and authority away from those closest to children, teachers and their parents, and puts it in the hands of state and federal authorities.

What Nebraska has shown is that it does not have to be this way. As Doug Christiansen put it: “We (Nebraska’s educators) made a promise to be accountable not be held accountable. We made a promise to stand up for teaching all children and leaving no child behind. We made a promise that this work would be led from the local level and from classrooms. We promised that the design and practice of our work would come from the energy, creativity and knowledge of our educators…We promised our students our best instruction and that it would not be defined by the limits of what could be tested.”

Through investment in teachers, engagement of the public, and leadership with an eye toward what’s best for kids and not test or textbook companies our friends in America’s heartland have kept that promise. They have shown us community engagement and control of schools at its finest. The question is only whether policy makers around the country we are willing to learn from this successful lesson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This shows if you dumb-down the test sufficiently you can have a 100% passing rate with zero Achievement Gap. Keep up the good work...