Is It The Tests or the Stakes?

As DC grapples with whether or not to adopt an accountability framework that would assign between 60-80% of a charter preschool’s overall rank to its students’ reading and math scores, it’s worth asking: What’s at the root of the problem here — the tests, or the stakes attached to those tests?

When it comes to the debate over the Early Childhood Framework (which you can access here – just click “Public Hearing” in the left column and then click “Early Childhood PMF”), I would suggest it is overwhelmingly the latter.

Here’s the thing: just about every early childhood program worth its salt is already assessing children in a variety of ways, including, and not limited to, reading and math. Usually, these assessments are administered in a 1-on-1 format, and if a teacher does his or her job skillfully, the child won’t even register that it’s a “test.” So the Public Charter School Board is correct when it says that testing children in these subjects is not new.

What their explanation glosses over is the impact children, educators and parents can expect once these assessments have high-stakes attached to them. Rankings matter to all schools, but they are particularly important to charter schools, which are always in the midst of raising money, searching for a permanent facility, and recruiting families. Here in DC, “Tier 1″ status is a gateway to better fundraising, preferential treatment when it comes to facilities, and longer waiting lists.

The problem with the PCSB’s proposal, therefore, has less to do with requiring schools to choose from a common pool of math and reading assessments (indeed, the list boasts more than thirty options to choose from, many of which were submitted by the charters themselves), and more to do with attaching a disproportionate weight to reading and math. This immediately transforms those assessments from diagnostic to accountability tools. It is guaranteed to modify the behavior and strategic planning of the schools. And it perpetuates the shell game of American public education, in which we use partial information to pronounce complete judgment on whether a given reform effort is working or not. (And, more importantly, in which we allow ourselves to assign credit or blame in ways that correspond to a political timetable.)

In reality, as both common sense and research would tell you, it’s not that simple. “True standards of intellect do not lend themselves wholly to quickly collected, precise, standard measurement,” wrote Ted Sizer in his classic book, Horace’s Compromise. “We need to devise clusters of instruments to probe our students’ ability to think resourcefully about important things. Indeed, we need time to reflect deeply on what we mean by ‘think resourcefully’ and what we feel are the most ‘important things.’”

In his 2009 book Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz makes a similar point. “Careful testing can give us tremendously valuable information about student achievement that we would otherwise lack,” he says. The question is how well we understand what standardized tests can, and cannot, tell us about American schools. “There is no optimal design,” he asserts. “Rather, designing a testing program is an exercise in trade-offs and compromise – and a judgment about which compromise is best.

Systems that overvalue one set of test scores fail to heed this advice, but they also fail to highlight a sufficiently clear picture of what is actually happening in a school. “Certainly, low scores are a sign that something is amiss,” Koretz says. “But the low scores themselves don’t tell why achievement is low and are usually insufficient to tell us where instruction is good or bad, just as a fever by itself is insufficient to reveal what illness a child has. Disappointing scores can mask good instruction, and high scores can hide problems that need to be addressed.”

So let’s vigorously debate ideas like the PCSB framework, and when we do so, let’s follow the lead of experts like Lydia Carlis, the chief of Research and Innovation for the AppleTree network of preschools. “The ongoing conversation will be so useful to all children if we focus on both/and rather than either/or when discussing teaching and (developmentally appropriate) assessments of academics and SEL in early childhood, ” she says. “The early childhood interventions that have been evaluated longitudinally and shown effective demonstrate that low-income children at risk for school failure need early access to high quality, evidence based academic and social supports. Social emotional skills are both necessary and insufficient for closing the academic achievement gap. Children who begin demonstrating cognitive gaps as early as nine months need skill and concept development on academic content and strategic support for social emotional learning. And clearly, all children will benefit from a high quality, balanced instructional program.

Works for me. PCSB, are you listening?

 

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