When Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we found a lever to potentially stop the hamster wheel of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) examinations in New Jersey, the pitfalls of which have been detailed here by my colleague, Dr. David Aderhold.
New Jersey is doubling down on standardized assessments despite decades of educational research and centuries of common sense insisting that it takes more than a single score to understand student achievement, teacher effectiveness, or any relationship between the two. There are serious questions we must ask about whether PARCC should even be considered as one of multiple measures, let alone stand as the only measure. Look here and here for sobering news about the future of PARCC.
ESSA provides an opportunity to unhitch our wagon from the reactionary “test and punish” regime unleashed by its predecessor No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and work together to craft a more balanced approach to measuring the academic success of our children. See this rundown of the opportunities within ESSA to rethink our tired approach to accountability.
We must rally behind those possibilities.
I hope we can follow a more sensible approach to determine which measurements of “achievement” ring true in 2016 and beyond. Those measurements do not lie in the ability to decipher and solve a four step word problem unlike any other problem we will face in our lives. Rather, those measurements should include standardized assessments as one piece of a larger portfolio that demonstrates the whole of a student’s goals and experiences in our school systems. Otherwise, that four step math problem becomes the summation of a child’s educational experience. I do not want that for the children I serve. I certainly do not want that for my own children.
We live in a world in which children’s play dates are scheduled and structured, youth sports extend year round, and the national education agenda is unclear. It is striking to me that education is a minor talking point in the presidential election conversations and debates. However, in New Jersey and elsewhere, big decisions are being made about tests, careers, and graduation requirements that may go beyond what ESSA imagined, all while parents juggle their children’s calendars.
Why wouldn’t we step off that hamster wheel to see if there’s a better way?
I wrote this piece as part of a larger conversation about ensuring student opportunities, access and support within the FRHSD and grappling with the term ALL from a systems perspective. A work in progress in many ways!
No Child Left Behind spurred a narrowing of the term ALL in schools across the nation. Achievement was measured solely by performance on standardized assessments which inhibited the development of alternative measures for student growth. The national focus on assessment performance stilted schools from developing systems that nurtured and supported equity and excellence in ways that defined the concept of ALL more broadly. Distinct achievement gaps were uncovered for the first time as a result of subsequent reporting requirements. In following a narrow definition of ALL, schools pursued aggressive policies and practices aimed at closing achievement gaps identified by singular metrics that emerged from disaggregated analysis of standardized assessments. Often, these metrics devolved into traditionally subjective sorting processes that limited opportunities for students, whether through leveling, teacher recommendation, or school practice that ignored the complexity of an individual student journey through a K-12 institution. At the FRHSD we have been reimagining the concept of ALL by engaging in a systems approach to identify individual student needs, strengths and aspirations within the larger system and to utilize data in more unconventional and district specific means. This allows us to broaden the scope of our understanding of opportunities and achievement in our district while simultaneously expanding our work grounded in the concepts of equity and excellence. The pursuit of ALL must be understood as the core Mission. As a result, our definition of equity and excellence for ALL has been sharpened by a simple guiding belief, that all students will explore passions in rigorous course work. To pursue our Mission we have created unique, district specific metrics that provide a directional beyond standardized assessments. These metrics capture programmatic, instructional and curricular data which is utilized by school and district leadership teams to ensure every student is appropriately challenged.
To achieve fidelity to our promises of equity and excellence, we have grounded our work within school specific goals that are reflective of the district mission but designed with flexibility to serve unique and shifting populations. These goals are uncovered organically, embracing a wide range of data that requires a nuanced examination of the individual student experience within our six high schools. As we broaden our understanding of school data, structures are in place that allow for alignment of school goals to the larger Mission through collaborative analysis among school and district administrators, representatives of the School Improvement Panel (ScIP) and our Professional Learning Communities. Principals utilize these metrics to chart progress, identify strengths and struggles and engage in double loop learning in order to continually refine our action steps to promote improved student outcomes while ensuring that we tear down traditional cycles of understanding progress that do not adequately serve ALL students. As we crystalize our understanding of student needs, our tools to provide answers become apparent. In this sense we are not simply developing interventions or reactive measures to promote student achievement along narrow measures of success, nor are we following static data from a standardized assessment. We are freeing our administrators from traditionally stunted means of examining student work to focus on individuals within the system and to target areas of need. We are flipping our understanding and use of student outcome data to focus on deeper systems processes that propel us down the road to embracing each and every student as a unique learner. These processes have unfolded over the past several years and have led to the development of concurrent support courses, the elimination of courses that stagnated student growth, the creation of bridge courses to spur acceleration and the removal of a host of artificial barriers to student opportunity such as cumbersome and unaffiliated pre-requisites, and an overreliance on standardized assessment data to determine student fate. Through the holistic use of systems data that both informed and fueled our wonderings, we are on course to guarantee all FRHSD students an educational journey that promotes the development of the whole child.
Our success has been dramatic. Student opportunity in more rigorous courses has grown significantly; we increased our Advanced Placement examinations by over 2,000 from 2010-2015 despite a declining student population. We have expanded our career and technical education programs, increased our community partnerships and internship opportunities and instituted an International Baccalaureate program to appeal more specifically to student passions. Hundreds of students have moved along the continuum to explore more demanding course work. While our Hispanic population represented in AP courses has increased by 110% we know that we must continue to make strides toward ensuring equity of access and opportunity and support for ALL learners to follow passions for their own growth. Therefore, we have begun the process of embedding specific equity goals directly into our school based goals to help drive continual growth. In this endeavor our district based metrics and directionals have pointed toward the path, it is up to us to continue to shape the journey.
“Standardized,” like “rigor,” is one of those words that we sometimes use without really thinking about its dictionary meaning. “Standardized” usually means making or causing things to be the same size, weight, shape.
Public schools in New Jersey administer standardized assessments to our students at each grade level, 3-11. We are not looking to make all students the same. Rather, the purpose of the assessment program is to ensure fidelity to curriculum standards and gauge student achievement against those standards. Such assessments, when used properly, reveal equity issues in schools and districts, help teachers pinpoint individual student strengths and areas for growth, and inform the improvement of our instructional program. No single assessment can do all of these things in the context of a district’s local priorities. Districts use collections of assessments, some standardized and some not, to paint this picture.
I am growing increasingly concerned, however, that specific standardized assessments are becoming the only acceptable barometers. These specific assessments may not be the most appropriate measurements of mastery for all students. The time necessary to prepare for, administer, and monitor these assessments may not represent the best use of time for all classrooms. I am led to the unavoidable question: is there a better way?
From age 15, I’ve experienced workplaces that included individuals with widely divergent skills and interests. The same holds true of my college and graduate school experiences. People are not standardized. They are individuals.
If our standards are meant to provide only a foundation for the development of our local curriculum, and our goals for individual students, is it unreasonable to expect more flexibility in assessment, standardized or not? A typical high school student today now faces up to 30 hours of standardized assessments. Must we require 30 hours of testing to measure every student’s achievement of those standards? Our students deserve accountability that is balanced with the need for expanded classwork to develop modern skills. The day of more nuanced assessments that preserve validity but are more respectful of instructional time has arrived. Today’s world and today’s educational standards require a creativity that no standardized test can measure or foster in any student.
When we accept a monolithic assessment regime, we are embracing a paradigm that ignores the skills that students need to thrive in the modern age. I would welcome the opportunity for students to demonstrate skills such as cognitive flexibility, problem solving, creativity, collaboration and negotiation. These are exceptionally complex skills, but I am certain we can measure them in less than 30 hours.
The realities of modern life rarely require one best answer. Rather, we find ourselves exploring a host of possible answers, among which we must use our abilities to determine the most reasonable and effective choices. Indeed, our standards respect this reality by stressing the need for students to understand how to recognize, apply, and advocate for different approaches. Our determination of student achievement cannot remain so static as to be captured by a single standardized assessment. Nor can we allow the varied and effective measures that we know to be truer reflections of the real world to be crowded out by that standardized assessment.
Our charge as educational leaders is to open new avenues for students to find and develop their passions through challenging coursework, meeting standards along the way. I am not suggesting we jettison standardized assessments. However, such assessments are just threads in the complex tapestry of a student’s mastery of standards along the way to realizing passions.
Standardized assessments therefore have a place in our measurement. When their importance outweighs their utility, and when the investment of time, energy and money diverts from the true achievement of necessary skills, the assessments become an impediment rather than a measurement.
We are educational leaders. We commit to the mission of preparing all students to flourish in tomorrow’s world.
Shame on us if we are not fighting to ensure a more balanced approach to understanding our student strengths and needs in anticipation of that world.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week I am reminded of the sacrifice that so many families make for all of us during the holiday season. We have so much to be thankful for each and every day and do not always appreciate our own good fortune or the price others pay to help make that good fortune a reality. Our failings are not intentional, but emanate from losing focus on what really matters to the day to day vagaries of life. It’s a natural occurrence because we are all busy. Life is just busy. Still, I hope that you take the time to focus on what really matters over this holiday break-spending time with family and friends and not sweating the small stuff in life. Please keep those families with a missing loved one at the dinner table this Thanksgiving in your hearts. If you do find yourself sweating the small stuff, take six minutes and watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dKWq0CzK-k
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
Public school rankings have been on my mind. Last month, during my Executive Student Cabinet meeting, a student asked me how we might continue to improve our various rankings so that our schools gained even more prominence in the public eye.
My answer was perhaps long winded, but worth sharing.
Each year I find myself helping our school communities make sense of these rankings that generate significant publicity, good or ill, for schools. Educating a child is a complex and messy endeavor. Every student is unique. Every student has strengths and needs. Educators wade into this complexity to prepare students for life after school. Despite this complexity, a whole segment of the media is intent on ranking schools on a relatively small number of criteria. These rankings are celebrated, discussed, dissected and paraded by the press as some sort of objective means of determining which school is “better” than another school. In fact, these rankings sell magazines. But what are they really measuring?
As a superintendent who has routinely had schools ranked at the top of the list, I am careful not to overly celebrate or to be overly concerned when our numbers shift from year to year.
Why this overt lack of concern?
For one, I have yet to see a ranking system that measures individual impacts to student lives - programs, teachers, courses, or opportunities for life changing experiences. These things simply cannot be measured through reductionist rankings. No statistician can quantify these victories or achievements. Secondly, many of these rankings are misleading and rely on self-reported data with minimal controls. Just look at their own methodology documents. A school’s computer-to-student ratio was once a large percentage of one prominent ranking. This ratio tells us very little about the school system and how that system is helping to nurture and teach children. (It doesn’t even tell us how students are using technology). Finally, in many cases the rankings only include a subset of a subgroup of eligible schools that have elected to participate. I’m not sure what “top” means when many schools are not even included.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many important barometers of a school’s impact on children in the metrics that these rankings consider--graduation rates, performance on benchmarked external assessments, etc. However, we need to embrace those barometers with our eyes open as to what the rankings do not tell us. Labeling one school the “best” over another school tells us very little about how that school supported students toward achieving their goals. It also pretends to offer clarity, which it doesn’t; hundreds of schools are not ranked and an over-reliance on self-reported data erodes any chance at true objectivity.
As a district, we could play the rankings game by targeting areas we know those rankings focus upon, which would positively skew our rankings as a result. We don’t. Instead, we focus on helping children find their passions, take risks, and prepare themselves for broader shores beyond our community. And there isn’t a quantitative metric that accurately or fairly captures that goal. If one is created, I’m sure we will score just fine along that metric.
If we’re invited to be scored at all.
I’ve been walking. A lot. Spurred by a fascination with the step counter on my phone and buoyed by the summer weather, I committed to walking at least 11,000 steps each day. I have found that while walking when I return phone calls or traversing the neighborhood in the evenings, my mood instantly improves and I’m more productive.
I stumbled across this article http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/?smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0 and found that it resonated powerfully with my deliberate effort to get outside and move around more frequently. My commitment to walking this summer has caused me to wonder how I might continue throughout the school year. There are so many ancillary benefits. You establish a daily goal, which helps to keep you focused. Moving around stimulates your brain; this encourages thinking and reflecting while helping to prioritize the work that lies ahead. And, being outside more frequently helps to quiet your mind and provide the space to process the day and chart your next level of work as an educator.
I am interested to see if I can keep up the walking pace as the new school year unfolds, as the weather cools and the school commitments increase. The thought of meeting a goal and achieving some peace of mind in the process excites me. As we prepare for the beginning of a new school year, I encourage everyone to find a way to unwind and experience nature. As with any new school year there will be bumps in the road, vast hills, and unexpected deviations on the path. Embrace these challenges as they also represent opportunities for growth. Take the time to get outside. To reconnect with yourself and what inspires you to continue to push forward for others. And do that regularly. I’ll be out there trying with you.